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Can You Ease Sinus Woes by Avoiding Dairy?

One reader found that dropping dairy products eliminated sinus woes. Could this be a symptom of a food allergy?
Asian woman with sinus and suffer from sinusitis,Healthy and nasal,Close up

Hay fever and other seasonal allergies can cause a lot of discomfort. The congestion such allergic reactions cause can lead to sinus woes that seem to last a long time. But what if the problem is not  simply seasonal and you end up with chronic sinus troubles? One reader found that changing the diet could make a big difference.

Overcoming Sinus Woes by Dumping Dairy:

Q. In recent articles you have addressed nasal issues causing painful sinuses and facial discomfort. Years ago, I used to wake up every morning with “face aches,” aka sinus pain. I went to different doctors who prescribed sulfa until I became allergic to it. Then I read an article that said many sinus woes are caused by an allergy to the milk protein casein.

I stopped drinking milk and have never had the “face aches” again. I use unsweetened almond “milk” for my morning oatmeal, and all is good.

A. There is a popular belief that consuming dairy products can contribute to nasal congestion. We have struggled to find research confirming this connection. We think, however, that people suffering with ongoing sinusitis might want to try switching to non-dairy beverages and foods as an experiment.

Allergies to Dairy Are Fairly Common:

A recent review demonstrates that more than 10 percent of US adults have food allergies, with shellfish and milk most common (Gupta et al, JAMA Network Open, Jan. 4, 2019).  People who suspect an allergy would do well to see a doctor about allergy testing.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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comments (16 total)
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It’s always a high-wire act, decision making – what to do, what to NOT do. Perhaps an individual’s reaction to dairy isn’t an allergy but a simple chemistry issue. Maybe mechanical (temperature changes? does cheese cause the same symptoms? etc.). And let’s not forget the power of suggestion, as well as placebo effects.

Regardless of causation, it’s well established in folk “lore” 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 tested allergic to 50+ things, including milk. I was constrained from drinking it, or having ice cream, etc.. 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 sniffing or coughing…

Getting adequate calcium (and magnesium) can be a concern. Recently we’ve been advised that the taking of supplements is not the “solution” once thought, but that we should ensure that dietary intake is optimal. Fortunately a balanced diet will provide everything necessary for most people.

I would like to try not using dairy products but wonder how to get enough calcium from other foods. I am 77 & have a great fear of osteoporosis

You might find this show helpful. Although it is several years old, the information is still relevant.

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.

Thanks to all commenters for sharing their experience with dairy headaches. It sheds light on my decades of head congestion, sinus pain, headaches, and so on and so forth. Have had only three headaches in the last few years, thanks to getting knocked on the head! My head miseries could have been avoided over the past 40+ years if I’d had this discussion forum. There are also books that even tell which blood types are more likely to have these problems. Since I no longer have their program on my NPR station, I’m so pleased that the Graedons offer this space for sharing our experiences–since Knowledge truly is Power (to care for ourselves well).

I make it a regular practice to stop eating dairy in February, when the pollen season starts in southeastern PA. It helps alleviate hay fever quite noticeably.

Many years ago I had a cytotoxic blood test to find out what caused my chronic anaemia. No,not iron-deficiency anaemia. Among sugar, wheat, yeast, the main culprit was casein, a milk protein I think. I never liked milk, and even as a child felt nauseous drinking it without food. I would wake up with migraine-type symptoms almost every morning which got better after a cleansing fast and elimination diet. Lucky for me I have had holistic MDs since the late 70’s. Last week, after eating cows milk Brie without the white rind, I had tonsil stones again in many of my
“cavey” tonsils. I usually eat goat/sheep milk brie and hard Manchego or Gouda sheep cheese without problems. Butter and whipping cream (in coffee) never bothered me, and I love them. At 79 and no clogged arteries, it’s a treat.

What most people don’t realize is that, when it comes to food, an allergy is a reaction that can lead to anaphylaxis. A food intolerance usually causes digestive distress, but can also include the type of reactions that one would consider to be similar to an allergy to pollen.

I don’t know about sinus problems, but I do know that when I was singing with a local choir, we were always told not to drink dairy before performance (or rehearsal). Dairy caused a noticeable increase in phlegm and congestion, which didn’t disappear until hours later! I avoid dairy before any speaking obligation as well.

Large amounts of dairy seem to bother me, as far as causing more mucus. This has been really evident when I am already sick with a cold, and then eat dairy and stay awake all night, coughing and choking. I am lactose intolerant, but don’t show any dairy allergy from allergy testing. My allergist told me that skin testing for food allergies is of limited value, since the results are pretty unreliable.

I was able to discontinue ceritizine (Zyrtec) completely, after taking it nightly for many years, by eliminating dairy; but it included eliminating eggs, also. To totally eliminate those two ingredients, I also had to stop eating any baked goods, pasta, pastry, and all those other yummy foods with cheese and milk.

At first I did this elimination diet only during allergy seasons, spring and fall. Now it’s full time because just a tablespoon of grated cheese brings me next morning allergy symptoms. It has been totally worth it, to me. I once described myself as having snot dripping off my elbows. Now I have no symptoms, at all.

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