What Happens If You Ignore Lactose Intolerance?

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With any health condition or unusual behaviors with your body, it is never advisable to ignore them. Any time you exhibit something that isn’t normal for you – you should always consult your doctor immediately.

If a problem is detected early, it is better for you as your doctor may be able to treat it before it becomes an even bigger problem or develops into a serious or incurable situation. 

You may think lactose intolerance isn’t too bad. You’ve heard it isn’t going to kill you, right? Well, kind of. Lactose intolerance on its own will not kill you, but what if it isn’t lactose intolerance?

Mistaking a life threatening condition for lactose intolerance could have obvious, dire consequences.

Lactose intolerance is common with about 34% of US citizens living with the condition. If you have lactose intolerance or suspect that you do, ignoring it is not a good idea – even if it isn’t causing you a serious problem. 

Today, we will explore why ignoring lactose intolerance symptoms is ill-advised and what you should do if you have symptoms of the condition. 

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

The first thing we need to address is that symptoms of lactose intolerance (or at least, what you think is lactose intolerance) could actually signify something else altogether.

Many people mistakenly attribute serious conditions to lactose intolerance symptoms due to their similarities. 

Let’s look at some of the most common symptoms of lactose intolerance and then what alternative conditions they could actually be from if not lactose intolerance:

1. Diarrhea 

Diarrhea or frequent and loose bowel movements can indeed be a symptom of lactose intolerance, but it could also indicate more serious conditions such as gastrointestinal infections, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, IBS or other functional bowel disorders.

Ignoring chronic diarrhea could be fatal as it can lead to extreme dehydration. In some cases, hospitalization may be required for intravenous hydration. 

2. Stomach Cramping And Abdominal Pain

For the lactose intolerant, cramping and pain can be common and usually do not last long after eating dairy. However, these two symptoms can also signify much worse conditions.

Appendicitis, cancer, kidney stones, gallstone disease, a blockage in the bowels, pancreatitis and a variety of other potentially life threatening conditions can be to blame instead.

Getting the right advice for stomach cramping or severe abdominal pain is crucial – so you must speak to a medical expert to rule out the possibilities of things like cancer.

If the results of your doctor’s analysis discover your condition is serious, like cancer or an infection, time sensitive treatment is important. 

3. Chronic Flatulence 

Farting is a totally normal bodily function, but excessive and often foul smelling flatulence can be an indicator of even further medical conditions including IBS, Celiac disease or bad side effects from medications. 

4. Bloating 

Bloating is an uncomfortable feeling of “ballooning,” tightness or swelling. Sometimes it comes with pain or excessive gas. Bloating though can be either a simple response to eating too quickly for example, or it can be a sign of more serious conditions like bacterial overgrowth, IBS or inflammatory bowel disease.

It may also be a response to heartburn or a psychological reason like stress or anxiety. 

5. Food Allergies 

Common food allergies such as gluten, wheat or dairy can be difficult to differentiate when it comes to lactose intolerance. Elimination is the key to reducing symptoms, so finding out what you’re intolerant to may help you to feel better faster.

Lactose intolerance alone isn’t life-threatening, but an allergy to milk can be. Some reactions from a milk allergy can include problems with swallowing, breathing difficulties and anaphylaxis. 

6. Social Impact 

Being lactose intolerant is uncomfortable, but it can have serious implications to your social life if you ignore it and don’t seek advice on how to manage it. 

You may end up avoiding social situations due to fear of embarrassment. This can lead to extreme loneliness and potentially further psychological impacts like social anxiety and depression.

If these were a factor in your digestive complications anyway – this could worsen it. 

If you’re experiencing an impact on your mental health because of lactose intolerance, you should speak with a mental health expert and/or your doctor. You should not have to live in fear because of something like lactose intolerance.

How To Differentiate Between Different Conditions? 

The most sure fire way is to see your doctor, but there are some common symptoms with estimated times of alleviation. Below is a list with an estimated time of relief:

  • Lactose intolerance/bloating/diarrhea/gas/abdominal pain: Within 48 hours 
  • IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Days or months
  • Milk allergy: Within 3 days depending on severity and amount consumed 
  • Gluten intolerance: A few weeks

These are estimated times and are all subject to severity and what was eaten, the person themselves etc. 


If you ignore lactose intolerance, it could get worse. You’ll need to get a professional to assess you and provide you with advice on how to manage your symptoms.

Diagnostic testing is not painful and could potentially save your life if your symptoms are not due to lactose intolerance. 

A lactose breath test may be requested to assess if you are lactose intolerant, but in most cases, the diagnosis is based on symptoms and history and perhaps a trial of elimination followed by reintroduction to see if symptoms recur when dairy is reintroduced.

Once you’re confirmed as lactose intolerant, the doctor will talk with you about managing the symptoms. 

Living With Lactose Intolerance 

Lactose intolerance doesn’t mean you can’t live a normal life. You may now have to make informed choices about some of the foods you eat and perhaps change your overall diet and lifestyle.

You should check the labels of your food and drink products and check if they contain lactose. When buying any dairy products, ensure you’re buying the lactose-free versions of them to prevent symptoms from flaring up. 

It is recommended that you eat smaller portion sizes if you must eat dairy products. It is possible for lactose intolerant people to consume a very small amount of lactose (for example, in Greek yogurt or hard cheeses) and not experience obvious symptoms.

Taking Lactaid (the lactase enzyme which helps break down lactose), can help reduce symptoms if dairy is consumed.

Of course, you may decide to cut out dairy altogether – and that is fine if it is controlled. If you’re going to make that decision, you should consult with your doctor first. 

Another idea is to introduce probiotics into your diet. Research has suggested that probiotics can reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance – much like lactase enzyme pills.

Note though, these methods do not work for every person that is lactose intolerant. 

What Happens If You Ignore Lactose Intolerance?

If you ignore lactose intolerance symptoms, you may actually be ignoring a serious health condition. Do not ignore any health concerns because it may be a fatal decision. 

Lactose intolerance alone isn’t going to kill you, but other more serious conditions could. It is imperative that you speak with your doctor and get the expert advice to allow you to move on and manage any uncomfortable or painful symptoms. 

There are many ways to manage lactose intolerance and you can live your life more comfortably.

Check out other related articles on lactose intolerance:

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Chelsea Cleary, RDN

    Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) specializing in holistic treatment for chronic digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), SIBO, and Crohn’s disease. She educates patients on how they can heal themselves from their conditions by modifying lifestyle and dietary habits.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.