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Lactose intolerance

Image of a teenage girl holding her stomach.

Plenty of people get a stomachache after eating a huge ice cream sundae. But if you get a stomachache every time you eat pizza or drink milk, you could have lactose intolerance (say: LAK-tose in-TAH-luh-runtz).

Lactose intolerance means that you have trouble digesting lactose, which is the sugar in dairy foods. (Lactose intolerance isn't the same thing as a milk allergy, which happens when your immune system acts as though anything made from milk is a threat to your body.)

These days, there are lots of ways for people with lactose intolerance to deal with it. Keep reading to learn more, including:

Symptoms of lactose intolerance arrow top

Lactose intolerance can start suddenly, even if you've never had trouble with dairy products before. Symptoms usually start a half-hour to two hours after eating or drinking something with lactose. Symptoms include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

If you think you may have lactose intolerance, see your doctor.

Diagnosing lactose intolerance arrow top

To diagnose lactose intolerance, your doctor may ask you some questions and do a physical exam. The next step may be for you to avoid eating foods with lactose for a while and see if you feel better.

The doctor may also do some tests. One common test checks your breath for a substance your body makes if it is not digesting lactose well. Another possible test is called an endoscopy. A thin tube is placed down your throat to get a better sense of what's going on inside your digestive system. It may be a little uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt.

Living with lactose intolerance arrow top

There is no cure for lactose intolerance, but there are lots of ways to live well with it and enjoy yummy foods. Try these suggestions:

  • Talk to your doctor about pills and drops made from lactase, which is the enzyme that helps you digest the lactose in milk and milk products.
  • Drink lactose-reduced and lactose-free milk, which can be found in most grocery stores. Look for products like lactose-reduced cottage cheese.
  • Try eating dairy again by adding small amounts at first and slowly adding more.
  • Have milk along with a meal or other foods, such as cereal, rather than alone.
  • Try dairy foods that have less lactose than milk, since they may not bother your stomach as much. Try yogurt and cheeses like cheddar and Swiss.

If you can't comfortably eat any lactose, learn to read food labels. Even products like lunch meats and cereal may have products made from milk, such as whey. You also can look for alternatives to dairy, such as rice milk, almond milk, soy yogurt, and cream cheese made from tofu.

Consider working with a dietitian, who can suggest foods to eat that are good for your health and won't upset your stomach.

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Lactose intolerance and bone health

If you don't eat dairy products, it can be hard to get enough calcium and vitamin D. These nutrients are very important for building strong bones.

If dairy bothers your stomach, try the bulleted tips above to eat some dairy products. You also can look for other sources of calcium and vitamin D, such as calcium-fortified orange juice. Check out the %Daily Value on Nutrition Facts labels to see how much of these nutrients are included. Girls need 1,300 milligrams of calcium (which means you need to eat enough to add up to 130% of the Daily Value) and 600 International Units of vitamin D per day (which is 100% of the Daily Value). If you can't get enough calcium and vitamin D from foods and drinks, your doctor may recommend a supplement.

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Content last reviewed November 05, 2013
Page last updated January 13, 2014