Lactose Intolerance: Sings, causes, Diagnosis and Treatments

Lactose intolerance is a common digestive disorder characterized by the body’s inability to fully digest lactose, a sugar found primarily in dairy products. This condition, which affects a significant percentage of the global population, arises due to a deficiency of lactase, an enzyme produced in the small intestine essential for breaking down lactose. Symptoms typically manifest shortly after consuming lactose-rich foods and can range from mild discomfort to severe abdominal pain. This article will delve into the signs, causes, diagnosis, and possible treatment options for lactose intolerance, providing a comprehensive understanding of this widespread yet often misunderstood condition.

Understanding Lactose Intolerance

To fully understand lactose intolerance, it’s crucial to acknowledge the role of lactase, the enzyme responsible for the digestion of lactose. When lactase levels are low, lactose remains undigested and moves into the colon, where it interacts with gut bacteria. This interaction leads to the production of gas, which results in the common symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal discomfort. It’s important to note that lactase production varies significantly among individuals and can be influenced by genetic factors, age, and dietary habits. Not all individuals with low lactase levels experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, further highlighting the complexity of this condition.

Signals of Lactose Intolerance

The onset of symptoms related to lactose intolerance typically occurs within a few hours of consuming dairy or lactose-rich foods. These include:

  • Bloating: This is often one of the first signals of lactose intolerance, resulting from the accumulation of gas in the gut produced by the interaction of undigested lactose and gut bacteria.
  • Diarrhea: The presence of undigested lactose in the colon draws water into the gut, leading to looser, more frequent stools.
  • Abdominal Pain: Excessive gas and water in the gut can cause discomfort and cramping in the abdomen.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Some individuals may experience nausea, and in severe cases, vomiting after consuming products with lactose.
  • Flatulence: Increased gas production can lead to more frequent passing of wind.

It’s crucial to differentiate these symptoms from other gastrointestinal disorders. If these symptoms persist, especially after dairy intake, it may signify lactose intolerance and professional medical advice should be sought.

Causes and Risk Factors

As mentioned earlier, lactose intolerance arises due to a deficiency of lactase. Three distinct types of lactose intolerance differ in their causes and risk factors:

  • Primary Lactose Intolerance: This is the most common form of lactose intolerance, and it occurs mainly due to genetic predisposition. It’s prevalent among individuals of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American descent.
  • Secondary Lactose Intolerance: This type of lactose intolerance occurs due to damage or surgery in the small intestine, leading to a reduction in lactase production. Causes include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and chemotherapy.
  • Congenital Lactose Intolerance: This rare form of lactose intolerance occurs in infants and is caused by a genetic defect that prevents the production of lactase.

Apart from these, certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing lactose intolerance. These include:

  • Age: Lactase production typically declines with age, making older individuals more susceptible to lactose intolerance.
  • Family History: As mentioned earlier, lactose intolerance can be genetic, so having a family member with the condition increases the risk.
  • Certain Health Conditions: As discussed, certain health conditions that affect the small intestine can lead to secondary lactose intolerance.


If you experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, it’s essential to seek medical advice. Your doctor may conduct various tests to confirm the diagnosis, such as:

  • Lactose Tolerance Test: This test involves consuming a lactose-rich drink and monitoring blood glucose levels to determine how well your body can digest lactose.
  • Hydrogen Breath Test: In this test, you’ll consume a lactose solution and then breathe into a device that measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath. High levels of hydrogen indicate that undigested lactose has reached the colon.

Once diagnosed, the most effective treatment for lactose intolerance is to avoid or limit the consumption of dairy and lactose-rich foods.


Unfortunately, there’s no cure for lactose intolerance, but several treatment options can help manage symptoms and ensure adequate nutrition. These include:

  • Dietary Changes: Avoiding or limiting dairy and lactose-rich foods is the most effective way to manage symptoms. However, it’s crucial to consult a dietitian to ensure proper nutrient intake.
  • Lactase Supplements: Lactase supplements can be taken before consuming dairy to help break down lactose and reduce symptoms.
  • Alternative Dairy Products: Many dairy alternatives, such as almond milk and coconut milk, are lactose-free and can be used in place of regular cow’s milk.
  • Probiotics: Probiotic supplements or foods like yogurt can help improve gut health and alleviate symptoms.

In rare cases, individuals with severe lactose intolerance may need to eliminate all sources of lactose from their diet, including hidden sources such as processed foods and medications. It’s crucial to consult a healthcare professional before making any significant dietary changes.

Are you lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive?

While the terms “lactose intolerance” and “lactose sensitivity” are often used interchangeably, there is a slight difference between the two conditions. Lactose intolerance refers to an actual deficiency in lactase production, whereas lactose sensitivity refers to experiencing symptoms after consuming foods with high levels of lactose, even though one may not have a deficiency in lactase. In other words, lactose sensitivity is more of a tolerance issue rather than an intolerance.

It’s essential to understand the difference between the two as it can affect how your symptoms are managed and treated. If you’re unsure about whether you have lactose intolerance or sensitivity, seek medical advice for proper diagnosis and treatment. With proper management, individuals with lactose intolerance can still enjoy a balanced and nutritious diet without the worry of unpleasant symptoms. So, don’t let lactose intolerance stop you from enjoying your favorite foods!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is lactose intolerance the same as a milk allergy?

No, lactose intolerance is an inability to digest lactose, while a milk allergy is an immune response to the proteins found in milk. They are two separate conditions with different causes and treatments.

Can lactose intolerance develop later in life?

Yes, it’s possible for individuals to develop symptoms of lactose intolerance later in life. This can occur due to a decline in lactase production or other factors such as health conditions.

Is there a test for lactose intolerance?

Yes, several tests can be performed by healthcare professionals to diagnose lactose intolerance, including the lactose tolerance test and hydrogen breath test.

What are some effective remedies for lactose intolerance that provide quick relief?

Unfortunately, there are no quick remedies for lactose intolerance. The most effective way to manage symptoms is to avoid or limit the consumption of dairy and lactose-rich foods. Some individuals may find relief by taking lactase supplements before consuming dairy or opting for probiotic-rich foods like yogurt. Consulting a healthcare professional is recommended for personalized treatment options. Soaking legumes and


Lactose intolerance is a common condition that affects individuals worldwide. It occurs due to a deficiency in the enzyme lactase, leading to the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. While there is no cure for lactose intolerance, it can be effectively managed through dietary changes and other treatment options. If you suspect you have lactose intolerance or experience symptoms after consuming dairy, consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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