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Know the Difference: Lactose Sensitivity vs. Lactose Intolerance


Mother spreading cream cheese on a bagel for her daughter

By Jaime Hollander

People often refer to lactose intolerance as lactose sensitivity, but medical professionals do not. Lactose sensitivity, or sensitivity due to lactose, can be caused by various conditions. Lactose intolerance is the condition of not being able to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products. Nearly 65 percent of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose.

Here’s what you should know about lactose intolerance.

What is lactose intolerance? Lactose intolerance is the condition of having a lactase enzyme deficiency. Lactase breaks down the sugar known as lactose, which is found primarily in milk and dairy products. People with lactose intolerance may experience gas, bloating or diarrhea after eating or drinking milk or dairy products with lactose.

Why do people lack the lactase enzyme? After infancy, humans naturally begin producing less lactase. The level of intolerance is what informs the amount of lactose a person can consume before experiencing painful side effects.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance? Within 30-120 minutes of consuming milk or milk products, people typically experience a range of physical symptoms, including gas, cramping, bloating, diarrhea and/or nausea.

How bad can it be? Lactose intolerance symptoms can be mild or severe depending on the amount of lactose consumed and the degree of lactase deficiency. Some people who produce small amounts of lactase may be able to tolerate small servings of foods containing lactose. Common signs and symptoms include abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and/or bloating.

Dairy allergy vs. lactose intolerance: Are they the same? No – the symptoms of food allergies are different from the symptoms of lactose intolerance. The side effects of lactose intolerance can cause moderate to severe discomfort, but an allergy is far more serious. A true food allergy is a reaction of the body’s immune system that can be severe or life-threatening. Consult your doctor if you think you may have a food allergy.

Lactose intolerance is a common condition, so it’s important to recognize the key triggers and symptoms, and to understand the non-dairy food options available so you and your family can make smart food choices. If you have lactose intolerance, being aware of what’s in your meals and snacks -- and the impact those contents may have on your immediate health -- is essential to feeling your best every day. And if you’re lactose intolerant but don’t want to give up some of those favorite foods, these products from the LACTAID® Brand will help you eat what you want, when you want.

Except for content on the LACTAID® Brand website, the links provided are for educational purposes only. No sponsorship or endorsement is implied. Information for this quiz came from the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health.

©Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. 2019

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