Gastroenterology (Digestive Health)

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Lactose Intolerance Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

People with lactose intolerance have trouble digesting a sugar in milk and dairy products called lactose.

The bodies of people with lactose intolerance don't make enough of an enzyme called lactase. When there's not enough lactase in the body, lactose doesn't get broken down in the small intestine, and it passes into the large intestine where bacteria ferment it into gases and acids. This can cause cramps, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea — usually within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating or drinking anything that contains lactose.

For some students, symptoms can be very severe and they can't eat or drink anything that contains lactose. For others, symptoms may be milder and they just have to limit the number of dairy products they consume.

Students with lactose intolerance may:

  • have to sit closest to the bathroom because they need to take frequent bathroom breaks
  • be embarrassed by their symptoms
  • need to have special lunches prepared in the cafeteria
  • need to go to the school nurse for medication or to cope with symptoms
  • need additional time to make up class work due to symptoms associated with lactose intolerance

What Teachers Can Do

Lactose intolerance is not an allergic reaction and is usually not life threatening, but it can be upsetting or embarrassing for students when symptoms occur.

The best strategy for students with lactose intolerance is to avoid milk and dairy foods. But doing so can mean that those students don't get enough calcium in their diets. You can encourage them to eat calcium-rich foods in the cafeteria that don't have lactose, such as broccoli, collard greens, kale, turnip greens, salmon, almonds, soybeans, dried fruit, fortified orange juice, and tofu.

Most students know what they can and can't tolerate, but it's a good idea to contact their parents or guardians for a list of foods to be avoided so you can provide alternatives if snacks are eaten in class. Be sure to check with the school nurse if you have additional concerns.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016