Chemotherapy-induced lactose intolerance in adults

Cancer. 1994 Sep 1;74(5):1629-33. doi: 10.1002/1097-0142(19940901)74:5<1629::aid-cncr2820740523>;2-l.


Background: Anorexia and weight loss contribute to the morbidity and mortality from cancer. This study was designed to test the hypothesis that chemotherapy produces lactose intolerance which could have an adverse effect on the nutritional status of patients receiving cytotoxic drugs.

Methods: Twenty-seven patients were evaluated for the development of lactose intolerance during chemotherapy. Lactose breath hydrogen testing (LBHT) was used to assess lactose malabsorption objectively. This test is based on the principle that in patients with lactase deficiency, lactose is not hydrolyzed in the small intestine and ultimately is degraded by colonic bacteria. This results in the production of hydrogen gas, which is excreted by the lungs and can be quantified with a breath hydrogen analyzer.

Results: Of the 27 patients studied, 8 (30%) had an abnormal postchemotherapy LBHT results, and for the population as a whole, postchemotherapy LBHT values were significantly greater than prechemotherapy values (P = 0.04). However, only three patients (11%) showed clinical symptoms of lactose intolerance during the post-chemotherapy LBHT. Five patients had asymptomatic elevations in breath hydrogen excretion on prechemotherapy testing. One of these patients had a further increase in hydrogen excretion on Day 8 after chemotherapy, which was accompanied by symptoms of lactose intolerance. Twenty-two patients had normal prechemotherapy LBHT results. Two of these patients had abnormal post-chemotherapy LBHT results, which were associated with symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Conclusion: Although chemotherapy may interfere with lactose metabolism, the development of symptomatic lactose intolerance is uncommon. Dietary restriction of milk products in patients receiving chemotherapy therefore is not warranted unless clinical symptoms of lactose intolerance are observed.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / adverse effects*
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Breath Tests
  • Colon / microbiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen / analysis
  • Hydrolysis
  • Intestine, Small / metabolism
  • Lactose / analysis
  • Lactose / metabolism
  • Lactose Intolerance / chemically induced*
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / chemically induced
  • Malabsorption Syndromes / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutritional Status
  • Time Factors


  • Hydrogen
  • Lactose