If I am Lactose Intolerant or Lactose Allergic, Are There Medications I Should Avoid?

Published: January 13, 2023
Sandra Cabezas
By Sandra Cabezas, 2023 PharmD Candidate

Lactose is a “milk sugar” found in many food products, primarily containing dairy. Because lactose is a large molecule, the body uses an enzyme called lactase to break down lactose and make it easier to absorb in the small intestine. People can be lactose intolerant or lactose allergic. It is important to know which one you have so they can be managed better.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance occurs when the body does not produce enough lactase leading to an inability to breakdown lactose. The inability to break down lactose can cause gastrointestinal effects such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gas. Avoiding or limiting dairy products can help prevent these symptoms from occurring in most patients. Some patients may also choose to use a lactase product to help manage their symptoms. Your pharmacist can help you select a lactase product that will work for you.

What is a lactose allergy?

A lactose allergy (also commonly referred to as a dairy allergy) results from how your body’s immune system reacts to certain components in dairy products. In this case, ingesting lactose can lead to an allergic reaction which can cause more serious and even life-threatening events such as swelling of the lips/face, trouble swallowing, and difficulty breathing. If you are lactose allergic, you should avoid the use of any lactose-containing products, and you may be asked to keep an epinephrine pen (Epi-pen) on you in case you accidentally ingest something with lactose.

Why is lactose used in drug manufacturing?

Lactose is commonly used as an inactive ingredient in the manufacturing of medications. One reason it is used often is because it can increase the bulkiness of powders that are used to make tablets. It can also be used as a filler component in the production of both tablets and capsules.

Are there lactose-free medication options?

The low amount of lactose used in medication products is usually too low to cause adverse effects in most people that have lactose intolerance. However, if you are allergic to lactose, you should avoid lactose-containing medications entirely, as they may lead to severe adverse events.

While those with lactose intolerance should be able to continue taking medications containing lactose, some people are highly sensitive and may need alternative options. In this case, you can ask your pharmacist to see if they can order from a manufacturer that has a lactose-free option available. You also have the possibility of looking into compounding pharmacies to make lactose-free options for your medications. If compounding a lactose-free version of your medication is not possible, talk to your doctor about an alternative treatment option.


Although lactose is used in small amounts as an inactive ingredient, if you have an allergy to lactose, then medications containing lactose should be avoided for your safety. You can ask your pharmacists for lactose-free options if you are allergic or if you have a highly sensitive intolerance to lactose. If none are accessible, ask your doctor if an alternative treatment option is available.


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