Do dairy products cause congestion?

Have you ever wondered about giving milk to your child when he has a cold and cough? Do dairy products aggravate nasal congestion? Let’s find out in the article below.

By Shiny Lizia M

Do dairy products cause congestion?

Neetu, a mother of a five-year-old boy, is apprehensive about giving her son his daily dose of milk and curd as he is suffering from cold and cough. Neetu always has a doubt if she should drink or give her son to drink milk when he has congestion. 

Neetu is not alone. Most parents of children stop giving milk and other dairy products to their child if he is suffering from nasal congestion. They are hesitant to continue with dairy products as they fear that it will worsen their children’s cold and cough. It is believed that dairy products increase mucus secretion. Considering the huge nutritional benefits of milk, which is an important component of a healthy diet, is it really required to restrict milk in the diet? Let us explore and bust the myths here.

Traditional Chinese medicine forbids milk when you have a cold as it is regarded as a mucus-forming food. There are contradicting views on this topic. However, recent scientific research into the ‘milk-mucus theory’ suggests that dairy products are safe for consumption when you are suffering from congestion.

Dairy and its benefits:

Milk and other dairy products are one of the most important foods during childhood and adolescence. Dairy products contain calcium, protein, phosphorus, and other micronutrients which promote skeletal, muscular, and cognitive development.

The Indian Council of Medical Research recommends five servings of milk (100 g) a day for children for unrestricted healthy development.

Dairy and congestion: The myth busted

Many people believe that milk leads to upper-respiratory congestion. The most common causes of nasal congestion and runny nose in infants and children are viral infections or allergies. Mucus is the film that covers the surface of the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract, protecting the respiratory organs against mechanical, thermal and chemical irritations. Scientific literature has dismissed the myth that milk consumption causes excessive mucus production or any other cold-related symptoms in the respiratory system.
The milk–mucus theory probably stems from reasons related to the creamy consistency of milk. Soon after consuming milk, an emulsion may temporarily adhere to the thin mucus layer coating the throat, resulting in a sensation of increased mucus production. The sensation of increased viscosity or thickness of mucus probably occurs when the milk emulsion mixes with saliva. This is purely a subjective sensory response. In alternative medicine, people with lower respiratory tract infections, are advised not to eat mucus-forming foods especially all kinds of dairy products. It could be because of cow’s milk allergy symptoms are similar to asthma-like symptoms.

In a study published in the American Review of Respiratory Diseases, where people were vaccinated with the common cold virus, it was found that milk intake was not associated with increased nasal secretions, symptoms of a cough, or congestion.

Dairy and immunity: The Facts

If you are not allergic to dairy, you can consume fermented dairy products like buttermilk or curd as these have anti-inflammatory properties.

Completely omitting milk from your diet may lead to inadequate nutrient intakes such as calcium and vitamin D. A study showed that children who drank more milk were found to have a better lung function compared to children who did not drink milk.

Foods to fight congestion

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables like carrots, bell-pepper are rich in antioxidants, which support the immune system of your child and improve resistance against respiratory illnesses.
  • Fish contains anti-asthmatic properties. It is rich in immune-boosting and inflammation fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Herbs and spices are packed with immune-boosting properties which fight illnesses. Seasoning your child’s meals with fresh herbs and spices add a flavorful and antioxidant-rich punch to her diet. Include these in your child’s daily diet in recipes such as soups, stews, teas and other dishes and wade off the viral and bacterial attacks.
  • Probiotic-rich foods such as fermented dairy products (curd, yogurt, lassi, buttermilk, paneer etc.) and vegetables lead to the development of healthy respiratory and digestive functions in your child. Scientific studies indicate that honey (2.5–10 mg, one dose at bedtime), and vitamin C rich citrus fruits and vegetables are beneficial in reducing congestion.

Foods to avoid during congestion

Certain foods increase mucus production or thicken the mucus that is already produced. In general, calorie dense and nutrient poor diet increases your child’s oxidative stress. It can lead to poor immunity.
Eating meats (especially red meats) cooked at higher temperatures, such as barbecues and grilling increases congestion. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, the most common food allergens include:

  • Eggs
  • Nuts 
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy

These are major respiratory irritants as well. Foods that are natural sources of histamine may increase phlegm production. These foods include alcohol, avocados, aged cheeses such as Parmesan, smoked meats, mushrooms, and spinach. Avoiding these foods may help relieve congestion in children.

Shiny Lizia M is a nutritionist from Chennai.

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