Using medication to manage pain and bloating, making dietary changes, and taking a lactase pill before eating can alleviate uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance is when the body cannot properly break down a sugar called lactose. As the body cannot digest lactose, a person may experience pain and digestive symptoms.

Making changes to the diet is the most effective way to manage the symptoms and avoid discomfort. However, if a person with lactose intolerance does consume food or drink containing lactose and develops symptoms, over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help.

This article suggests strategies to help manage pain and discomfort from lactose intolerance.

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Lactose intolerance results from lactose malabsorption, which is when someone cannot digest and absorb lactose in food and drinks. Evidence suggests that roughly 36% of people in the United States have lactose malabsorption.

When people with lactose malabsorption ingest foods or beverages containing lactose, they may develop certain abdominal symptoms, such as pain, bloating, and diarrhea.

Lactose is a sugar that occurs naturally in milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt. Usually, an enzyme known as lactase breaks down lactose to make it easier for the body to digest.

Typically, people with lactose intolerance cannot produce sufficient levels of lactase to digest lactose. When this happens, the lactose passes into the colon, where bacteria ferment it, creating fluids and gas.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance often start about 30–120 minutes after consuming foods that contain lactose and may include:

Symptoms of lactose intolerance may interfere with a person’s daily activities, causing discomfort, inconvenience, or pain. Speaking with a doctor about how to manage the symptoms and considering the following options might help.

Learn about other food intolerances here.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines may help ease the discomfort of lactose intolerance. However, it is important to stop consuming lactose to prevent the symptoms from persisting.

Pain relievers such as acetaminophen may relieve abdominal pain and discomfort. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) states that people could use loperamide and bismuth subsalicylate for acute diarrhea. However, for chronic diarrhea or stools that are bloody, people should contact a doctor.

If someone has symptoms of gas and bloating, using medications that contain simethicone may help. Simethicone may ease flatulence, heartburn, and excess gas in the digestive tract. However, simethicone does not inhibit lactose intolerance or cure it.

Learn more about loperamide here.

The NIDDK indicates that people can manage the symptoms of lactose intolerance by changing their diet. Some people may only need to limit the amount of lactose they consume, but others may need to avoid all foods and drinks containing lactose.

Lactose is in all foods and drinks that contain milk and milk products. Lactose is or may be present in the following foods and beverages:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • yogurt
  • cream
  • processed foods, such as breakfast cereals, soups, margarine, snack foods, and instant potatoes
  • baked goods, such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, and cookies
  • sauces, dips, and salad dressings
  • nondairy coffee creamers and whipped toppings
  • processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, luncheon meats, and sausages

People should check the labels and look for the following words which indicate that lactose is present:

  • milk
  • lactose
  • milk by-products
  • nonfat dry milk powder
  • whey
  • curds
  • dry milk solids

Yogurt and hard cheeses contain less lactose, so some people may be able to tolerate eating them. Research suggests that many people can consume 12 grams (g) of lactose (the amount in one cup of milk) without symptoms.

People can purchase lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk and milk products as an alternative to regular dairy products. They may also wish to try substitutes for dairy milk, such as soy, almond, or oat milk.

Learn more about alternatives to dairy milk here.

Lactase products

Lactase products contain the enzyme lactase that helps to break down lactose. People can take lactase tablets before they consume food or drink containing lactose or add lactase drops to milk.

Using lactase products may help some people to manage their symptoms. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor before taking lactase products.

Learn how long symptoms of lactose intolerance last here.

Probiotics may benefit people with lactose intolerance, according to some research. However, current evidence is inconclusive, and scientists need to do more studies before doctors routinely recommend probiotic supplements.

Additionally, research indicates that the strain of bacteria in the probiotic is important in improving symptoms. Particular strains, such as the DDS-1 strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus, may be more beneficial.

People can purchase probiotic supplements or ask a dietitian for advice. Additionally, probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso, contain probiotic bacteria that may help support gut health.

Learn more about the benefits of probiotics here.

If someone has persistent pain, discomfort, or regular bouts of diarrhea, they should contact a doctor. Chronic diarrhea may lead to the following complications:

Potential complications of lactose intolerance may include osteoporosis. This can occur if someone does not get enough calcium to support their bones.

People should look for alternative sources of calcium, such as leafy green vegetables, canned salmon and sardines with bones, and fortified plant milk.

Additionally, a dietitian or health professional can help someone plan their diet and explore alternatives to foods and drinks that contain lactose.

Learn more about calcium-rich, nondairy foods here.

Avoiding or limiting foods and drinks containing lactose is the most effective way to manage symptoms of lactose intolerance. However, the amount of lactose someone with lactose intolerance can consume varies from person to person, so people need to experiment with food to determine what they can tolerate.

Lactase supplements, lactose-free products, and probiotics may help manage symptoms. However, if someone is in pain, they may need to take OTC medications for pain relief, gas, diarrhea, or bloating.

People should consult a doctor if they have severe or chronic symptoms and talk with a dietitian to help them plan their diet.