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Can Milk and Other Dairy Products Stuff Up Your Sinuses?

Have you ever suffered from sinus congestion? It's nasty. Some people believe that milk and other dairy products can stuff up your sinuses, Are they right?
Can Milk and Other Dairy Products Stuff Up Your Sinuses?
Close up shot of a human nose

Do you ever find yourself completely congested for no apparent reason? You don’t have a cold. It’s not allergy season. You are otherwise in good health, but your nasal passages seem blocked. Is it possible that drinking milk, eating cheese and eating ice cream could stuff up your sinuses? Could cutting back on dairy products make a difference? This reader thinks so.

Did Milk Protein Cause Sinus Pain?

Q. Years ago, I used to wake up every morning with “face aches,” aka sinus pain. I went to many different doctors, all of whom prescribed antibiotics for a sinus infection. Then I became allergic to these drugs.

An article I read said that many sinus issues are caused by an allergy to the milk protein casein. As an experiment, I stopped drinking milk and never had face aches again. I use unsweetened almond milk for my morning oatmeal and all is well.

The Controversial Milk-Sinus Connection:

A. The role of milk protein allergy in causing sinus inflammation is controversial. Allergies sometimes can cause nasal congestion as well as hives, rash or swelling. Some research has linked cow’s milk protein allergy to ear, nose and throat problems in young children (Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, Aug. 2012). 

There has been little if any research on whether this also holds for adults. Many skeptics insist that dairy products don’t stuff up your sinuses. On the other hand, we don’t see any trouble in avoiding cow’s milk if you find it makes you feel better. Many people around the world do quite nicely without dairy products.

Readers Share Their Perspectives:

Valerie describes the dilemma:

“It’s always hard to know what to do and what not to do. Perhaps an individual’s reaction to dairy isn’t an allergy but a simple chemistry issue. And let’s not forget the power of suggestion, as well as placebo effects.

“Regardless of causation, it’s well established in folklore that dairy (unfortunately, including ice cream!) can stimulate production of mucus, phlegm and congestion. COPD patients expectorate more secretions; folks can have post-nasal drip and congestion; and those prone to sinus issues experience facial pain and sometimes headache.

“As a child, I was tested and found to be allergic to 50+ things, including milk. I was constrained from drinking it or having ice cream. However, cheese was never an issue. And when I’d sneak milk, the sky never fell! Also, my choir director advised everyone to drink dilute lemon juice to clear our throats prior to performing, not just those who were sniffling or coughing.”

Jane is also caught in a dilemma:

“I have advanced osteoporosis and MUST consume dairy; calcium supplements (even calcium citrate) just don’t supply adequate calcium. I avoided milk for a few months, since I seem to have a casein sensitivity, but I consider the relatively minor sinusitis an inconvenience compared to the protection the dairy products provide. I am not a big meat eater, so the dairy provides protein, also. It all seems to be a fair trade-off.”

Lora describes a different kind of problem:

“In our family, we get significant sinus issues anytime we drink milk. Allergy tests have not shown dairy as an allergen. When they were young, my children would reliably wake with a sinus infection the day after drinking it. We can eat cheese, yogurt, kefir and sometimes ice cream without significant issues. However, we consume small amounts and only a couple days a week (2 days on, 4-5 off). Even milk chocolate counts towards the days on, and we can do this and only if sinuses are clear.”

Diana reports success with an elimination diet. She says milk can stuff up your sinuses:

“I believe that dairy is linked to a lot of sinus and skin issues including acne. I’ve experienced both. During my teenage years, I drank a lot of milk, and hence I had a lot of acne.

“I’ve pretty much eliminated dairy and no longer have sinus issues. My functional medicine doctor believes that many people have sensitivities that don’t show up in traditional allergy tests.”

Linda came up with a simple solution:

“When I worked in a sewing mill, I started drinking hot water as my beverage. I am milk-intolerant, and tea tended to annoy me. So even when I went out for breakfast, I would ask for a cup of hot water. It will certainly clear your sinuses.”

Antibiotics and Sinusitis:

Antibiotics are often overprescribed for sinus congestion. A review of research in the New England Journal of Medicine (Sept. 8, 2016) concluded that antibiotics are rarely helpful for acute sinusitis. Please share your own sinus struggles in the comment section. Have you found a way to overcome congestion or sinusitis?

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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