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Experts disagree about whether dairy products – especially those made from cow's milk – increase nasal congestion, because there is no conclusive evidence one way or another.
When you or your child have a cold, the body produces extra mucus (also called phlegm) to help get rid of the infection. Drinking whole milk, which is a very nutritionally dense food, can make the mucus in the mouth feel thicker. And because the oral and nasal passages are connected, it may seem like your baby or child is more congested after drinking whole milk.
But that doesn't mean the milk itself is creating any additional mucus.
Here's what the research shows:
- No connection. In one study, researchers measured the amount of mucus 60 people with a cold produced over a 10-day period, and got them to record how much milk they drank. They found no connection between the amount of mucus produced and dairy consumption. Another study found no link between eating or drinking dairy products and asthma symptoms.
- It's all in your head. One research team randomly gave 169 people either cow's milk or soy milk, but disguised the taste so they couldn't tell what type they were drinking. Participants who drank the soy were just as likely as those who drank cow's milk to report feeling more mucus in their throat afterwards.
- Then again… A more recent trial got 100 people to follow either a dairy-free diet or a diet with dairy for almost a week. Those on the dairy-free diet reported less nasal congestion. Other researchers have hypothesized that people with a certain genetic makeup may react to milk by producing mucus.
The drawback of the studies so far is they were small and involved adults. More research is needed to figure out whether consuming dairy has any impact on congestion in children.
So what should you do?
- Don't withhold dairy just because your child is sick. Milk has important nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, that your child needs to grow. It may also help her stay hydrated, which is important when your child is under the weather.
- Try warming the milk if your child coughs after drinking it. Breathing in cool air while drinking cold milk could trigger a cough. Some people find warming the milk can help, although there haven't been studies to prove it.
- Look for other ways to ease congestion. Saline nasal drops and a humidifier can help sniffly babies breathe easier. Toddlers may feel better sleeping with their heads elevated and eating throat-soothing cold foods. Older kids may be able to gargle and even use a neti pot.
Talk to the doctor if you suspect a milk allergy. Signs of a milk allergy can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, or a rash. Symptoms can be similar if your child is lactose intolerant. Learn more about cold and flu myths and safe and effective home remedies that can help your sick child feel better.