Lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine doesn't produce enough of an enzyme (lactase) to digest milk sugar (lactose).
Normally, lactase turns milk sugar into two simple sugars — glucose and galactose — which are absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestinal lining.
If you're lactase deficient, lactose in your food moves into the colon instead of being processed and absorbed. In the colon, normal bacteria interact with undigested lactose, causing the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance.
There are three types of lactose intolerance. Different factors cause the lactase deficiency underlying each type.
Primary lactose intolerance
People who develop primary lactose intolerance — the most common type — start life producing enough lactase. Infants, who get all their nutrition from milk, need lactase.
As children replace milk with other foods, the amount of lactase they produce normally drops, but usually remains high enough to digest the amount of dairy in a typical adult diet. In primary lactose intolerance, lactase production falls off sharply by adulthood, making milk products difficult to digest.
Secondary lactose intolerance
This form of lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine decreases lactase production after an illness, injury or surgery involving your small intestine. Diseases associated with secondary lactose intolerance include intestinal infection, celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth and Crohn's disease.
Treatment of the underlying disorder might restore lactase levels and improve signs and symptoms, though it can take time.
Congenital or developmental lactose intolerance
It's possible, but rare, for babies to be born with lactose intolerance caused by a lack of lactase. This disorder is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive, meaning that both the mother and the father must pass on the same gene variant for a child to be affected. Premature infants can also have lactose intolerance because of an insufficient lactase level.