Allergy to cow’s milk is the most common food allergy in infants and young children. About 2.5 percent of children under three years old are allergic to milk. Nearly all infants who develop an allergy to milk do so in their first year of life.
Sensitivity to cow’s milk varies from person to person, and reactions can be unpredictable. Symptoms of a milk allergy reaction can range from mild, such as hives, to severe, such as anaphylaxis.
If you have a milk allergy, keep an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen®, Auvi-Q™ or Adrenaclick®) with you at all times. Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis.
To prevent a reaction, it is very important that you avoid cow’s milk and cow’s milk products. Always read food labels and ask questions about ingredients before eating a food that you have not prepared yourself.
If you are allergic to cow’s milk, your doctor may recommend you also avoid milk from other domestic animals. For example, goat's milk protein is similar to cow's milk protein and may cause a reaction in people who have a milk allergy.
Milk is one of the eight major allergens that must be listed on packaged foods sold in the U.S., as required by federal law. Download this resource on how to identify milk in food labels.
Avoid foods that contain milk or any of these ingredients:
- Butter, butter fat, butter oil, butter acid, butter ester(s)
- Casein hydrolysate
- Caseinates (in all forms)
- Cottage cheese
- Lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate
- Milk (in all forms including condensed, derivative, dry, evaporated, goat’s milk and milk from other animals, low-fat, malted, milkfat, non-fat, powder, protein, skimmed, solids, whole)
- Milk protein hydrolysate
- Rennet casein
- Sour cream, sour cream solids
- Sour milk solids
- Whey (in all forms)
- Whey protein hydrolysate
Other Possible Sources of Milk:
- Artificial butter flavor
- Baked goods
- Caramel candies
- Lactic acid starter culture and other bacterial cultures
- Luncheon meat, hot dogs and sausages, which may use the milk protein casein as a binder. Also, deli meat slicers are often used for both meat and cheese products, leading to cross-contact.
- Non-dairy products, as many contain casein
- Shellfish is sometimes dipped in milk to reduce the fishy odor. Ask questions when buying shellfish.
- Tuna fish, as some brands contain casein
- Some specialty products made with milk substitutes (i.e., soy-, nut- or rice-based dairy products) are manufactured on equipment shared with milk.
- Many restaurants put butter on grilled steaks to add extra flavor. You can’t see the butter after it melts.
- Some medications contain milk protein.
Allergens are not always present in these food and products, but milk protein can appear in surprising places. Again, read food labels and ask questions if you’re ever unsure about an item’s ingredients.
Kosher Dairy: A “D” or the word “dairy” following the circled K or U on a product label means the product contains or is contaminated with milk protein. Avoid these products if you have a milk allergy.
Kosher Pareve: A food product labeled “pareve” is considered milk-free under kosher dietary law. However, a product may be considered pareve even if it contains a very small amount of milk protein—possibly enough to cause an allergic reaction in certain people. Do not assume that these products will always be safe. Read more about kosher labeling>
People allergic to milk often have questions about the following ingredients. These ingredients do not contain milk protein and are safe to eat.
- Calcium lactate
- Calcium stearoyl lactylate
- Cocoa butter
- Cream of tartar
- Lactic acid (however, lactic acid starter culture may contain milk)
- Sodium lactate
- Sodium stearoyl lactylate
Most children eventually outgrow a milk allergy. The allergy is most likely to continue in children who have high levels of cow’s milk antibodies in their blood.
Blood tests that measure these antibodies can help your allergist determine whether or not a child is likely to outgrow a milk allergy.
What to Read Next
Learn how to prevent cross-contact, which happens when an allergen is accidentally transferred from one food to another.
Managing life with a food allergy means reading packaged food labels—every time you purchase that food.