Dairy and Asthma: Is There a Connection?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 12, 2022
3 min read

If you have asthma, you may worry that that dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt could trigger your symptoms. Unless you also have a dairy allergy, that's likely not true. But there are some connections between asthma and dairy.

No food can give you asthma. But if you have food allergies, it’s common to also have asthma or to develop it later on. Dairy products are among the foods people are most often allergic to.

When you have allergies, your immune system releases chemicals to protect you from a substance, such as nuts or pollen, that it mistakes for something harmful. Along with classic allergy symptoms like a rash or runny nose, the immune system response sometimes affects your lungs and airways. That's called allergic asthma, or allergy-induced asthma.

It can cause symptoms like:

We need more studies on the links between food allergies and asthma. But scientists have discovered some things in studies of children:

  • Kids with asthma have a higher risk of also having a food allergy.
  • Children with both conditions are more likely to have serious asthma.
  • Asthma puts you at a higher risk of having serious, sometimes fatal, allergic reactions to food (anaphylaxis).

If you have both allergies and asthma, it’s important to manage both conditions to prevent serious side effects.

Your doctor can help you to figure out your asthma triggers. They’ll also create a treatment plan that may involve medication and lifestyle changes to lower your chances of an asthma attack.

If you have asthma along with a serious food allergy, you and your doctor should make an emergency plan in case of anaphylaxis.

For centuries, people have believed that milk increases your body's production of mucus. That's one reason why many with asthma stay away from dairy products.

But studies have found no scientific evidence that dairy leads to more mucus. While milk's texture can mean it leaves a coating on the back of your throat, it doesn't narrow or create extra mucus in your airways.

If dairy causes your allergies and asthma to flare up, you can prevent these symptoms by avoiding it. If you crave dairy products, try substitutes such as:

  • Soy milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Almond, coconut, and oat milks
  • Vegetable oil spreads instead of butter

When you don't eat dairy, you lose an important source of calcium and Vitamin D. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to a higher risk of asthma attacks. So make sure you're eating foods like salmon, eggs, and fortified orange juice that are rich in D.

Also include calcium-rich foods like sardines, soybeans, and leafy green vegetables. You may want to ask your doctor about supplements.

Dairy isn’t the only food that could affect your breathing. Other foods many people are allergic to include:

  • Eggs
  • Peanuts and tree nuts (including cashews, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios)
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Fish and shellfish

It's rare, but food additives called sulfites can also sometimes set off an asthma attack. These are substances added to some foods to keep them fresh. They include:

  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite

You’ll find sulfites in processed foods like:

  • Dried fruits and veggies
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Packaged and pre-prepared potatoes
  • Wine and beer
  • Bottled lime or lemon juice
  • Packaged shrimp
  • Pickled foods

In rare cases, natural chemical compounds called salicylates can also cause an asthma flare-up. You’ll find them in:

Some studies have shown that food dyes could also set off allergies and asthma. But other research has found no harmful reaction. Talk to your doctor if you think certain foods trigger your asthma.