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Cow’s milk protein allergy in children

When your baby begins to itch and scratch, we know from experience it can be distressing. For parents with itchy new-borns, it can be difficult to identify what’s causing your baby’s skin irritation so you can help ease their discomfort. While there are many causes for eczema in children, one you may not have considered is Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy. 

What is Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy? 

Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy, also known as CMPA or CMA, is a type of food allergy where a baby’s immune system responds irregularly to the proteins found in cow’s milk, causing them to have an allergic reaction. Like any food allergy, the immune system, which helps the body fight off harmful pathogens, incorrectly identifies a component in the milk as harmful and produces an allergic response that may present itself as skin irritation and/or digestive problems.

Often, CMPA will develop when you first introduce cow’s milk into your baby’s diet – either in formula or solid food. This means if you’re breastfeeding, your new-born is less likely to be affected by CMPA. Though some babies will occasionally react to the milk protein from their mum’s diet.  

CMPA is one of the most common allergies among children, but it is still very rare. According to the NHS, CMPA affects around 7% of babies under one year old, and nearly all babies outgrow the allergy before their 6th birthday. 

Types of Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy

There are two types of Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy that can cause different reactions depending on your baby’s immune system:

  • Immediate CMPA (IgE-mediated). This is caused by the immunoglobulin E antibody and produces symptoms within minutes of your baby digesting cow’s milk.
  • Delayed CMPA (non-IgE-mediated). Delayed CMPA is the more common and treatable of the two CMPA allergies. Symptoms of delayed CMPA can begin several hours or even days after having cow’s milk and symptoms will usually persist for as long as cow’s milk continues to be consumed.

Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance. Although they do share some common symptoms, such as stomach pain and diarrhoea, unlike CMPA, lactose intolerance does not affect the immune system and is not considered an allergy. Instead, lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the lactose sugar found in cow’s milk. While lactose intolerance is common in adults, it is very rare in children under 5 years of age, so if you think your baby’s eczema is related to cow’s milk, it is more likely to be CMPA. 

If you expect your little one is suffering from a milk allergy or intolerance, it’s important to consult your doctor. They will conduct the relevant tests to determine whether your baby has CMPA and advise you on appropriate treatment or next steps.  

What symptoms should you look out for?

Typically, rashes, eczema, and hives can be signs of a cow’s milk protein allergy. But, like any allergy, symptoms can affect all areas of the body including the skin, the digestive system, and in extremely rare cases, breathing or blood circulation. We understand that the symptoms of CMPA can be distressing, especially when you’re just getting to know your baby, but don’t worry – CMPA can be easily diagnosed and managed with the correct diet.

Cow's milk protein allergy in children

If you suspect CMPA contact your doctor

Some common symptoms to look out for:

  • Eczema
  • Hives
  • Red, itchy rash
  • Diarrhoea
  • Colic
  • Back-arching
  • Constipation
  • Refusal to feed
  • Reflux
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble sleeping

Spotting the symptoms of CMPA can be difficult, especially when they’re similar to the expected behaviour of a baby, such as colic and reflux. If your baby has eczema or skin irritation, whether it is caused by CMPA or other triggers, there is a range of things you can do to help ease their itching while you wait to see a doctor.  

We’ve developed a range of wriggle-proof, baby safe scratch mitts to help your little ones have a better night’s sleep without scratching until you can get a professional diagnosis.

What to do if you expect your baby has CMPA?

Getting the right diagnosis as early as possible is important to help you find out what’s causing your baby’s eczema and ease their discomfort. If you notice any of the symptoms that could be related to CMPA in your baby, don’t worry, get in touch with your GP to discuss your concerns and they’ll help you to reach an accurate diagnosis. 

Depending on the severity of the case and the age of your baby, your GP may suggest a skin prick test, patch test, blood test, or an elimination diet followed by a food challenge to identify your baby’s CMPA.

As part of the elimination test, your doctor will ask you to remove any cow’s milk protein from your baby’s diet, or, if you are breastfeeding, they will help you eliminate cow’s milk proteins from your diet. If your baby does have an allergy, all symptoms should completely disappear after 6 weeks. If symptoms persist, your doctor will help you look into other possible causes. Or, if improvements occur, they will help you slowly reintroduce milk to see if reactions resume. 

If your GP diagnoses your baby with CMPA, don’t worry. Once diagnosed, Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy is completely manageable, and you can go back to enjoying feeding your baby. Your doctor will be able to prescribe special formula milk and recommend a paediatric dietician or specialist allergy clinic to help you support your baby and monitor their childhood nutrition and growth.

If you’re breastfeeding, your baby’s CMPA should not impact your routine. You will be able to carry on breastfeeding, usually with the help of a dietary specialist to remove any sources of cow’s milk from your diet. 

A note about Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy

CMPA is an extremely rare allergy which children usually grow out of – it is nothing to be worried about. If you think your little one’s eczema could be a result of a food allergy, it’s normal to be concerned, but don’t worry. Try to get an appointment with your GP as soon as you can to arrange an allergy test and receive a professional diagnosis and in the meantime, take a look at our top tips for parents new to baby eczema 

Remember, CMPA is rare in children, so if your baby has any of these symptoms, while it can be tempting to cut out possible triggers, don’t remove cow’s milk from their diet unless you’re instructed by your doctor or paediatric dietician. Cow’s milk contains many great nutrients that your baby needs to grow and develop. So for a healthy, happy, scratch-free baby, always consult your doctor before making any dietary changes.

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