Lactose intolerance is, in simple terms, when a person’s body doesn’t produce enough of the lactase enzyme which breaks down the sugar in milk (known as lactose).
Since every person’s body is different, people can experience different degrees of lactose intolerance, depending on how much lactase enzyme their body makes. For example, some people can’t even have milk chocolate, while others can eat a single pizza slice and be fine. (Learn more about the details here).
Usually, lactose intolerance comes with wonderful symptoms such as gas, bloating, and other fun stomach issues. Unfortunately for my parents, that wasn’t the case for me.
Around one year old my parents did the normal thing where babies are taken off formula and given real milk. And for the next six years, I would be plagued by ear infections, doctors visits, and a couple of surgeries.
I don’t personally remember most of it since I was so young. Throughout those six years, my mom estimates I had about 10 ear infections. I do remember the pain of those, unfortunately.
There is one time, in particular, I remember sitting at the computer and continuously touching my ear, so absorbed in the game I was playing I didn’t realize until a little while later that my ear was pounding painfully. That sense of dread overcame me as I had to go to my mom and tell her I thought I had yet another ear infection.
The Allergy Tests
(I will preface this with the fact that I was terrified of needles.)
When I was five years old I remember being brought to a big building clutching my favorite stuffed animal. The place was huge, and hospital-ish, but I could tell something was off. My parents and the doctors got me lying down on my stomach before I was informed I would be getting an allergy test – that is, 50 needles in my back, all at the same time.
I tried throwing a fit. It didn’t work, of course, and the test was completed. To this day, that remains a scarring memory. So. Many. Needles. My pain was all in vain, too, to make matters worse. I had no allergies to combat, none. And that includes dairy.
Concurrent with these tests, I had to get tubes placed in my ears twice during those six years. I was too young to remember the process, but I remember them being super annoying. I had to wear molded plastic in my ears when I swam and took showers, to make sure not a drop of water got inside them.
Also, the tubes would randomly fall out of my ears when the ear canals were no longer inflamed (therefore the infection was cleared up). Not a fun thing for a six-year-old to deal with.
After the failed allergy tests, the next suggestion was to have my adenoids removed. Adenoids are a little patch of tissue in the back of the nasal cavity, used for catching bacteria and keeping young kids from getting sick. Around age five they start to shrink and become obsolete as the body has other ways of fighting infections. On the flip side, if adenoids swell for any reason they can cause a multitude of issues, including ear problems.
And yet, after all those solutions (the tests, the tubes, the surgeries) I continued to have ear infections.
My Mom’s Revelation
About a week after my adenoid surgery and second set of tubes, I complained to my parents that my stomach was hurting. Finally, after putting together the stomach issues from my early years with formula, ear infections, allergy tests, and all the other evidence, my mom had a lightbulb moment: what if I was lactose intolerant?
Her brother is very lactose intolerant and unable to handle the smallest amount of dairy. While lactose intolerance usually causes stomach issues, my parents decided to take me off dairy at seven years old. They bought lactose-free milk for me to drink (you can learn about the alternatives to dairy milk), and I got special accommodations (AKA orange juice) at school.
My problems cleared right up. While it turns out I can enjoy the occasional slice of pizza just fine, drinking regular milk is off limits. And too much dairy in a short period of time now gives me stomach cramps.
No one suggested that I was lactose intolerant because ear infections are a very uncommon symptom for lactose intolerance, usually only present in young kids (which I was).
Even when I look up ear infections and lactose intolerance now, there are many more articles that would insist I have a dairy allergy, but that’s not the case. First off, I had a needle stuck in my arm to prove that wrong. Secondly, I don’t have a reaction to every trace amount of dairy I encounter, and haven’t had an ear infection in over a decade.
In The End
I don’t get to enjoy pizza on a regular basis, and milkshakes are a maybe once a year treat for me. There are a lot of times my food choices are limited, but I’m lucky that I don’t have near as worse off as some people do.
Plus there’s this awesome thing called Lactaid that essentially helps the body digest lactose, the saving grace for many a lactose intolerant person. Now, who’s ready for some ice cream?