My coffee shop allergy – reacting to milk vapour?

I’ve noticed a strange occurence lately, and this has only started happening over the last couple of months. I love coffee and meeting in coffee shops, and since working for myself I often go, just on my own, to be amongst people and check through written work for errors, somewhere away from the phones and other distractions.

Well, recently I’ve noticed that I’ve started to get a mild asthma attack when I go into coffee shops. I didn’t think much of it at first, a quick puff on the inhaler and I’ve been OK, but leaving the coffee shop brings instant relief.

At first I thought it could be cross contamination with milk or cream into my black coffee or herbal tea, but since my suspicians first arose I’ve been watching like a hawk, and making sure I let staff know so they make sure they’re careful. I have seen people stirring mugs of coffee with the same spoon as from a milky one before – this would be enough to give me a mild reaction in the past. A mild reaction being asthma and mild swelling of the lips and mouth.

I know my dairy allergy is dose related so I usually only get a mild reaction to a trace amount e.g. asthma, stomach cramps and maybe a nasty red rash on my cheeks. However, lately I’m wondering whether I’m becoming even more sensitive.

Could it be that I’m reacting to the oblivious latte and hot chocolate slurpers on the neighbouring tables? Does frothing up and heating the milk make it more allergenic? Has anyone else with a dairy allergy experienced this phenomenon when in the proximity of steaming milk?

I finally put two and two together when I was washing out an empty milk carton for the recycling; (my husband does drink milk so we still have it in the fridge) when I removed the lid to submerge it in the hot soapy suds I got a whiff of rancid milk. Not nice at any time, but on this occasion I immediately had quite a bad asthma attack, my lips began to sell up and had to leave the room and sit down. A minor panic which all ended well but this made me think ,”It’s the milk vapour that’s doing this. I’ve become super sensitive to milk!”

It seems to be the steaming of the milk that effects me, or getting a whiff right up the nostrils; I appear to be fine if the drink is made in the traditional English way with cold milk added.

So what am I do to? Never to relax in a cafe or coffee shop again? Perhaps a should wear a mask when in such establishments? Or perhaps limit my cafe visits to the summer when I can sit outside where the nasty vapours will be dispersed more easily? What a shame that would be as people-watching and whiling away the time in a cafe in winter with condensation on the windows, cosy and warm watching the world go by is a rare treat. Are there any dairy free cafes?

I’ve always been aware that some people have such severe allergies that they can’t even be in a room with others consuming the allergen but this has never happened to me before. Has anyone experienced the same thing? What should I do? Stop exposing myself to dairy in coffee shops? or keep going but for shorter visits? Can I perhaps desentise myself? This is probably unlikely since I get anaphylaxis from dairy if I consume even a small amount, always by mistake and when I’ve not been careful enough when ordering food. My attacks are also usually exacerbated by exercise so this is a new advancement for me.

I’d love to hear from others with an allergy to the smell or just being in proximity to their allergen. How do you cope with it? Does my house now need to be a milk free zone? Perhaps my husband can have his own fridge in the garage where he can have his breakfast and cup of tea – I’m sure he’d love that! So far it hasn’t happened with just one other milky drink in the room, but is it just a matter of time? or am I just panicking about nothing?

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About Ruth

Ruth works freelance as a copywriter and writes the What Allergy blog to share information with people who have allergies, eczema, asthma and food intolerances. was voted in the top 5 allergy blogs and Ruth also judges regularly for the FreeFrom Food Awards and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. She also won the Foods You Can People's choice Best FreeFrom blogger award 2014.


  1. Hi Ruth – What a pain……

    I have never heard of anyone getting an reaction to milk vapours before but people who are fish allergic certainly do react to fish vapour so I fear that it is only too likely. After there must be an awful lot of milk vapour floating round your average Starbucks!

    However, I wouldn’t give up on the coffee shop just yet…. Try a few basic avoidance procedures first…

    Try to sit in the corner so that milk vapour is only coming at your from one angle.
    Never go up to the counter to buy – let someone else do that – as the majority of vapour will be in the ‘making’ area.
    Wear an elegant chiffon scarf casually whipped around your head – it won’t filter out much but every little helps!
    Try to go at relatively un-busy times – avoid lunchtime- when there will be fewer people flashing their milk around.
    Aim for larger rather than small shops – more air for the vapour to disperse in.
    If possible get whoever you are with to get a clean cloth, or at least one which has been well washed out in water, to mop the table before you sit down to ensure there is no milk residue on the table – maybe easier just to use some baby wipes which you can carry with you and have thrown out as soon as you have used them.
    And, obviously – but I know I do not need to tell you – carry your Epipen/inhalers etc to reduce your stress levels.
    Good luck!!!
    Will also post your dilemma on my blog – see if anyone else comes up with some suggestions.

    • Hi Michelle. Thanks for the suggestions. All brilliant ones, thank you, but sadly eliminates my favourite little independent coffee shops which are small, always rammed full and thick with steaming milky drinks. This week I took an anti-histamine before entering and sat upstairs out of the way but still got asthma. Not bad enough to need to rush out but needed a few puffs and was a relief when I got out into the fresh air. Got to face the facts I think. Oh well. We live and we learn, and never fear. Epipens always at the ready.

  2. Oh dear….. sorry………
    How about, if they still exist, department store coffee shops? I know they are not the little independents, but….
    Incidentally – have you ever considered immunotherapy?….

    • Hi Michelle. I’m not sure what immunotherapy is. I know I do have a bit of a ropey immune system and can get run down very quickly and easily. I will have to look into this. Could this be something that strengthens my bodies defences and so reduces reactions such as this?

  3. martyn halle says:


    I’m a health journalist. I’m interested in your milk vapour allergy. Can you call me please?

  4. Not in a coffee shop, but I could well believe you are indeed reacting to liberated milk in the atmosphere. Our little Christopher has had mild reactions – when we knew no better than to linger too close to a certain pizza restaurant door. It took a little while for us to work out the connection but Christopher would get quite asthmatic and cough and splutter. We now know that he’s anaphylactic to CMP ingestion and reacts to touch so we can only surmise that it was aerosolised proteins from the cooking cheese. Needless to say we give the doorways a wide berth now and ventilate our kitchen well if we are cooking anything he may be sensitive to.

    • Gosh yes. I hadn’t thought of that. I did get a bit asthmatic the other night whilst out with my husband in a kind of tex mex place. Lots of pizza’s and melted cheese everywhere. I had thought that as long as I wasn’t eating any dairy I’d be fine but it seems it can travel airborne!

      • Ouch!…Unfortunately yes. although we had never heard of anyone else suffering like that until your post. It does rather limit the possibilities for an eating out treat as a family and James and Katie do love the odd pizza. Michelle reminds me that he would also get the full allergic rhinitis symptoms along with the dry cough and breathless wheeze, so streaming eyes and blocked sinus and runny nose too. My only wonder is that it took us quite so long to put two and two together. you know we even took us all to celebrate Katie’s 10th and Christopher’s 1st birthday at a pizza place….If we’d only known, but he was so unwell before diagnosis that we just couldn’t unravel what was going on.

        • It took me ages too and I was constantly worrying my asthma was not under control and upping the preventative inhaler dose, when all the time it was just asthma being triggered by exposure to airborn allergen. It doesn’t stop me but I’m far more aware now and am careful where we sit. Preferably near a door, in a corner and at quieter times seems to help a lot. Stay safe and lets hope one day there is a universal cheap cure.

  5. Hi, I see this post is a few years old, but I’m just curious what ever came of your experience? My little son recently went into anaphylaxis after being inside a coffee shop. He has severe asthma and food allergies, including an allergy to milk. We tested him for allergies to coffee (negative) and so concluded he was reacting to the aerosolized milk proteins from the milk steamer/frothier.

    • Hi Paulette, yes I’m convinced that I still have this problem. I get a mild reaction sometimes in my local pub on cheese and wine night so have learnt to avoid that. Coffee shops are difficult because they are one of those lovely cheap treats but I have learnt that sitting outside is best. Some coffee shops provide blankets in the winter, so as long as you’re wrapped up warm you can still enjoy steaming mug ob (black) tea of coffee. I also find it helps to sit near the door, avoid smaller places (such a shame as I love the little independent coffee shops) and also, avoid any really heaving busy places. After recent allergy tests I discovered that my dust allergy was off the scale. If I am anywhere with lots of people where the floor and curtains are dusty I also have mild asthma, which is annoying but never escalates to anything more serious. The same pub on a quiet day is fine, on a busy Friday night it’s painful and I can’t wait get outside. The asthma subsides the longer I’m out of the place. I’m really sorry to hear about your son, that must have been scary. I would suggest it could well have been aeorlised milk protein, as it’s the only thing that could have been affecting me. It took me ages to work it out, watching baristers like a hawk to see if they were stiring my black coffee with the same spoon or getting any milk in it, but it’s just in the air I think. Coffee shops for him might have to be a summer treat… or if you can sit upstairs, but at the moment, since he has such a severe reaction, I wouldn’t take him into one at all. You can tell him that he’s not the only one though! Interstingly, soya milk also gives me a really bad asthma attack, instantly, but with no other symptoms whatsoever. Good luck.

  6. Janis McG says:

    This happened in a Starbucks over the weekend to my highly milk-allergic son. He usually orders a kid’s soy milk and the staff is very accommodating, avoiding cross-contamination. But he had an amlost instant asthma attack upon walking through the doors.

    I know your original post is old, but the incident caused me to get online to see if this had been the case for any other milk allergy sufferers. I gave him a dose of Benadryl, with no relief. From experience, when the proteins are inhaled, they are in his lungs and bloodstream, bypassing the digestive system- and causing an immediate effect.

    He had a similar reaction about a year ago at summer camp when a fellow camper taunted him with a bag of cheesy Doritos- opened it right under is face. When he breathed in the cheese powder, he went into an immediate reaction.

  7. I have not had that happen with milk but coffee can sometimes do this to me. I have experiences with just the smell or vapor from pasta sauce setting me into a pretty good asthmatic and coughing reaction.

    You are not becoming allergic to coffee?

    • One of my good friends has a reaction to coffee vapour so I never have it when I’m with here. But no, I am fine when I have a black coffee at home, it’s just being out in a warm winter, steamy coffee shop. In summertime I can find places where I can sit outside but in winter that option is less appealing. Though I think I got actually dairyed the last time I had a black coffee and made the mistake of saying I’d have sugar… think they stirred it with universal whisk they stir everything with. Been back to speak to them about it but still lost 3 days of my life to a swollen nightmare.

  8. Happens to my daughter who has severe dairy allergies and asthma. She is in a Stsrbucks …especially close to counter, she has an Asthma attack. She is 14 and it had happened over the years consistently, I have been told it is not possible but we know it to be true!

    • Oh yes, I’ve been told that it’s not possible to react to an allergen unless I eat some, but I KNOW that’s not the case too. I thought they were getting milk in my tea/coffee and had a huge mistrust of all coffee shops but I worked it out one time when I just had a glass of water, much to disgust of the owner, but I STILL had an asthma attack. And within 10-15 mins of getting outside my breathing gets better. In summer I sit outside, in winter I try to sit upstairs or by the door. Bit sad as I love people watching in a cafe but I have been known to freeze outside in hat, scarf and gloves. Very bracing. I enjoy it honest ;o)

  9. This just happened to our daughter at Starbucks yesterday. I stopped in to get a beverage and she picked a boxed Apple juice. We were only in there long enough to stand at the counter, pay, get our drinks and leave. She began coughing and within 5 minutes actually asked for the inhaler. She does not have asthma in the traditional sense, but has had a few allergic asthma episodes in seven years. This happened one other time, again at a Starbucks, about three years ago. I think because the locations are small and they do a large volume of orders, it’s not a good combo for us. She is fine at another cafe we visit that is much larger, but does less volume when it comes to steamed milk. After the first incident, our allergist thought it was purely coincidental, but we still avoided taking our daughter into a Starbucks. Yesterday, we were at a shop right next to one, so I thought “It’s been 3 years; we are going right in and right back out.” And here I am today, googling to see who else has encountered this. ๐Ÿ˜ Lesson learned – small spaces with loads of steamed milk are out for us.

  10. Reading these posts have been so helpful, so glad I’m not the only one. I’m 23, have been severely milk allergic my whole life. I have had trouble with air exposure to milk since I was a child, but in the last 6 months it has gotten much more severe. Skin contact has also become a major problem for me. Starbucks is one of the worst places, and will send me into an immediate major asthma attack. Same with most restaurants where any kind of milk product is prepared. I have a fantastic allergist who specializes in food allergies, and we’re doing an official “airborne food challenge” in a few weeks to see just how allergic I really am. Honestly I’m just looking forward to having an official diagnosis because as it is right now, most work environments, even offices, aren’t safe for me. Someone drinking a cup of coffee in the next cube over, or eating cheese crackers and touching a door handle, is enough to make me very sick. It’s been a frustrating and upsetting journey, but I’m not giving up just yet.

  11. Hi Ruth – I noticed a similar thing recently so I thought that I would do a search and see if anyone had the same issue. For me, I can actually drink cold milk in any form, including in coffee, but for some reason, I have an allergy when I drink coffee that contains steamed milk.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!


  12. Wow I have been having this reaction for years at Starbucks and it all makes sense now. I am highly allergic to dairy and experience similar asthma attacks upon entering Starbucks, and now refuse to even walk in to the store. I never put it together that it was the steamed milk causing this reaction. Oddly enough, most other coffee shops don’t give me this kind of reaction, but I guess Starbucks is pumping out more steamed milk drinks than most other establishments. Thank you for your insight

  13. Hi Ruth – I am so glad to come across this article. I’m 23 years old and have a dairy allergy and I’ve noticed the 3-4 times I have been in Starbucks (a few times I haven’t even bought anything) I am noticing an allergic reaction to something. My throat starts to swell a little.
    So I think you’re on to something, it’s likely the milk vapour!

    • I am convinced it is, though I can’t prove it. It’s a mild reaction but unpleasant and in small coffee shops it’s very hard to breath. One day I’m gonna have a dairy free coffee shop with a book shop attached. No milk allowed and no swelling throats ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Molly Kyle says:

    I can absolutely attest to this. The exact same thing happens to me, and it’s really frustrating. ๐Ÿ™ I’ll have a coughing fit after I leave that lasts for at least 15 to 20 minutes, especially if I don’t have an inhaler on me. The last time it happened I took a benadryl, which helps, but takes longer than an inhaler. It is the milk proteins going airborne that’s doing it.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sarah chapman and RHolroyd, Ruth Holroyd. Ruth Holroyd said: Something strange has begun to happen to me in coffee shops recently. I suspect it’s got something to do with all… […]

  2. […] to milk vapour? Posted on February 18, 2011 by admin I have just been readingย a post on Ruth Holroyd’s excellent What Allergy blog in which she asks whether she could be reacting […]

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