Stomach pain, cramps, gas, bloating and diarrhea that occurs after you have eaten dairy products might indicate that you have lactose intolerance. Simply put: Your body is not able to digest milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy foods. People who have a permanent form of lactose intolerance do not make lactase, an enzyme that breaks down dairy products during digestion. You also can suffer from a temporary form of the condition, also referred to as secondary lactose intolerance. The causes vary, but the outcome is usually the same; your discomfort passes over time.
Temporary lactose intolerance can be the result of several gastrointestinal disruptions that might occur at certain times during your life. Viruses, such as the stomach flu, can temporarily shut off the lactase enzyme, interrupting your normal digestion of dairy products. If you suffer from other food intolerances or allergies, such as to wheat or gluten, your digestive tract might be more susceptible to irritation and injury, and your intestines could stop producing lactase for a period. People who have chronic medical conditions affecting the digestive tract, such as Crohn's disease or cystic fibrosis, also could become either temporarily or permanently lactose intolerant.
Medications also might cause secondary lactose intolerance. Antibiotics can be especially rough on your stomach and digestion -- in small children, antibiotics often lead to diarrhea even as they heal infection -- and could be the reason that you can't digest dairy. Once you have finished your course of antibiotics and lactase production kicks back in, your lactose intolerance likely will dissipate.
Premature babies, those born before the 37th to 40th weeks of pregnancy, might have a variety of problems. Some premature infants have trouble breathing, because their lungs are not yet mature, while others still have a thick layer of hair protecting their skin. Babies born significantly earlier than their due dates also might have temporary lactose intolerance, because their intestines are not yet making lactase. If you are breastfeeding, you may have to avoid dairy products for the sake of your baby's comfort, and if you are bottle feeding you may need to use a lactose-free formula. As the premature infant passes his due date, however, he may begin to produce lactase and outgrow the intolerance.
The solution to temporary lactose intolerance is to adopt the lifestyle you would follow if you were permanently affected by the condition. Taking over-the-counter digestive enzymes before consuming milk and other dairy products provides the lactase you need to digest such foods comfortably. Infants who cannot tolerate breast milk or regular infant formulas might be fed soy formulas or other alternatives. Keeping a food diary to determine which foods cause the most symptoms can help you determine which foods to reduce from your diet, and might help you recognize when your lactose intolerance has resolved itself.