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Does milk cause mucus? Pediatric doctor clears up common myth

Parents don't need to keep their children with colds or asthma away from milk, British specialist says
milk myth
Young girl drinking glass of milk.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Parents are often told to avoid milk if their children have asthma or any other respiratory ailment because it’s been thought that the popular drink can lead to excess mucus production. But, that’s all a myth, a British specialist argues.

The “myth” has been spread far and wide and most likely got its start back in the 12th century when a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides wrote that milk could cause a “stuffing in the head,” notes the article’s author, Dr. Ian Balfour-Lynn, a pediatric respiratory specialist from the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

And it’s become so ingrained that the latest —2011— edition of “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare” book continues to spread the misinformation, Balfour-Lynn observed in the article published in the Archives of Childhood Disease.

Balfour-Lynn points to an American survey of parents at a respiratory clinic, which found that 59 percent of respondents believed that drinking milk increased mucus production, while another 20 percent weren’t sure. Just 22 percent said they thought it did not.

Meanwhile, there have been plenty of studies showing that milk does not affect mucus production, according to Balfour-Lynn.

“Milk does not cause lots of extra mucus to be produced when someone has a cold or any chest disease, including asthma,” Balfour-Lynn said in an email. “Milk is an important source of calcium, vitamins and calories in the young. It should not be avoided.”

So what about that mucusy feeling we get in our mouths when we drink milk, which is basically fat dissolved in water?

It’s just the result of oral enzymes interacting with the milk, Balfour-Lynn said.

“The mucins in the mouth appear to cause emulsions to form aggregates, which means the volume increases and it gets stickier,” he explained. “It is likely what some people feel in their throats, which they mistakenly believe is extra mucus.”

When parents ask pediatric allergist Dr. Allyson Larkin to test their children for allergies because of stuffed up noses, she tells them milk doesn't lead to increased nasal congestion.

“We get that all the time,” said Larkin, a pediatric allergist at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “I don’t discount what people are feeling, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that milk consumption causes this problem."

She explains other reasons a child might be congested, such as a virus or an environmental allergy.

While parents may have valid reasons for avoiding milk, such as being vegan, allergies and mucus production shouldn’t be one of them, Larkin said.

And parents need to make sure that the nutrients that would have come from milk are made up in some other way, Larkin said.

Dr. Zhaoping Li isn’t completely convinced by the new article’s logic. If someone feels uncomfortable after drinking milk, she suggests they choose a suitable substitute.

“I’d tell a patient if you’re feeling mucusy or have other issues, including asthma, then maybe you shouldn’t drink milk at all,” said Li, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Or maybe drink less.”

The important thing, especially for kids, is that they get the nutrients that would have come from milk from somewhere else, whether that is from vegetables rich in calcium or other kinds of milk, Li said.