What Is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a common digestive disorder that occurs when the small intestine cannot break down lactose—the natural sugar found in dairy products like milk, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt. This condition is not a food allergy. It can occur at any age, but it usually develops during adolescence or adulthood.
If your body is unable to produce enough lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose for digestion), lactose passes into the large intestine undigested. When undigested lactose reaches the large intestine, it interacts with bacteria that are normally present there. The result is a set of uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms
If you are lactose intolerant, you might experience one or more of the following reactions within 30 minutes to 2 hours of eating dairy:
• Diarrhea (including foamy stool)
• Abdominal cramping (pain in the lower abdomen)
Since these can also be symptoms of other health conditions, testing is important in determining the appropriate treatment.
Testing and Diagnosis
Testing for lactose intolerance is quick and non-invasive. We use the Hydrogen Breath Test at our gastroenterology practice. This procedure measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath after you eat dairy. We ask you to drink a glass of milk three hours prior to your office visit. When you arrive at the office, we administer the test by simply having you blow into a testing bag. An elevated level of hydrogen indicates a positive test, which means you are lactose intolerant.
There is no cure for lactose intolerance. However, managing the condition is relatively simple. You can:
• Limit exposure to lactose by choosing low-lactose dairy products
• Consume dairy in small amounts with other foods
• Take over-the-counter lactase pills before eating dairy
• Try a completely lactose-free diet