For children with allergies to dairy, new research has revealed that over time, continued consumption might actually diminish or even remove the problem. In fact, regular daily consumption may be exactly what is needed to make the allergies go away.

The findings, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, were the result of a follow-up to a previous study that looked at the effects of giving increasing amounts of milk to children with milk allergies. What the researchers found was that constantly exposing them to milk, the patients gradually developed a tolerance for dairy products by essentially “retraining” their immune systems.

The follow-up study took place between 3 and 17 months after the initial project, and found that the children with severe milk allergies, who ranged in age from 6 to 16 years, were now able to safely consume milk at home. While some of them still had some reactions, they were generally described as mild and even became milder with time. Reactions to milk consumption included oral itch, hives, sneezing, and mild abdominal pain. None of the symptoms were considered serious.

Milk sensitivity was measured by a reactive skin test, as well as blood levels of IgE (decreased) and IgG4 (increased). IgE (immunoglobulin E) is a milk antibody which decreased over time, indicating the body’s growing tolerance to milk. IgG4 is a different antibody that signals immunity to a particular allergen, and its increases is another sign of increasing tolerance to milk.

Interestingly, when regular dairy consumption was discontinued, for some of the children, their symptoms did not reappear (implying that they had been cured of their allergies) while for others, they did. For the latter group, it is possible that regular exposure to dairy and dairy products is necessary to maintain tolerance.

Food allergies affect nearly 3 million children, with milk allergies being the most common. Dairy allergies occur when our bodies react to the proteins in milk, 80% of which are found in the curd (solids), while the 20% are in the whey (liquids). Our immune systems see the proteins as being “bad” invaders and attacks them with IgE, causing an extreme inflammatory response that can affect the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract, skin, and cardiovascular system.

Most symptoms pass within a day, but in extreme situations, a very strong reaction known as anaphylaxis can occur. Anaphylaxis results in swelling of the mouth, throat, and air passages such that breathing can be difficult, and coupled with a dangerous drop in blood pressure, could cause the body to go into shock. The effects can be lethal.

If you have questions or concerns about any sort of allergy your child may have, speak with your pediatrician or consult with an allergist. For more information about food allergies, including symptoms and treatment, visit the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).