Concerned about your child being lactose intolerant? Here’s what you need to know about the condition.
WORDS REBECCA WONG
Lactose intolerance — it’s a term most mums would have heard of and is commonly associated with having tummy troubles whenever one consumes dairy products. But what exactly does lactose intolerance mean, and how do you know if your little one is suffering from it? We find out more from the experts, along with advice on helping junior cope with the condition.
What Exactly is Lactose Intolerance?
“Lactose intolerance is a common adverse reaction where the body lacks the ability to digest lactose, a type of sugar abundant in dairy products,” explains Derrick Ong, founder and principal dietitian at Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy. “This digestive disorder is due to indigestible lactose from the small intestine to the colon. Children who are lactose intolerant have insufficient lactase, an enzyme that metabolises lactose into simpler sugars, glucose and galactose for easy absorption into the bloodstream. The unabsorbed lactose remains within the digestive system until bacteria fermentation in the colon, producing short chain fatty acids and gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane.”
Types of Lactose Intolerance
“There are two types of lactose intolerance, the primary and secondary lactase deficiency,” notes Ong. “Primary lactose intolerance is usually inherited. At birth, lactase productivity is high, but lactase production declines as one’s age increases into adulthood. This form of lactose intolerance is often permanent and is unable to be induced by large quantities of lactose, with African, Asian or Hispanic populations being more susceptible.” Primary lactose intolerance is also regarded as the most common type of lactose intolerance, with symptoms being present around the ages of four or five (although the time of onset is variable), explain Marilyn J. Hockenberry and David Wilson in Wong's Essentials of Pediatric Nursing.
In contrast, secondary lactose intolerance is caused by damage to the gastrointestinal tract mucosal, which may happen as a result of infection, removal of diseased portions of the gastrointestinal tract or immunodeficiency syndromes, says Charlotte Lin, senior dietitian at the National University Hospital. “This condition normally persists for two to four weeks after the intestines have fully recovered,” adds Ong.
Experts have also noted a condition known as congenital lactose intolerance, in which
the lactase enzyme is completely absent from birth. This may occur soon after birth when
the newborn has consumed lactose-containing milk, observe Hockenberry and Wilson.
However, congenital lactose intolerance in children is extremely rare, with the largest group occurring in Finland, says Lin.