People with a wheat allergy have an irregular immune system response to at least one of the proteins in wheat.
If a person with a wheat allergy has exposure to it, they may experience debilitating symptoms. In some cases, anaphylaxis can occur. This is a life threatening allergic response.
People who suspect that they may have a wheat allergy should seek immediate medical attention to confirm the diagnosis.
Some people experience an allergic reaction when they inhale wheat flour. Others experience symptoms after consuming it orally. An allergic reaction may occur within minutes or hours of either consuming or inhaling wheat.
A wheat allergy is one of the most common childhood food allergies. However, it can also occur in adults. A person with a wheat allergy has developed a specific antibody to one or several wheat proteins.
Wheat allergy is not the same as celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects a person’s digestive tract. Gluten can still trigger an irregular autoimmune response, but the medical management tips and nutrition guidelines are different for people with celiac disease.
Also, although gluten is a protein in wheat, people with celiac disease will not experience anaphylaxis. This is because celiac disease is not a type of allergic reaction.
This article covers how to recognize a wheat allergy, what triggers it, and some foods to avoid that contain wheat.
Wheat allergies tend to develop in infancy, often alongside other food allergies. It will usually resolve by the time a person is 12 years of age.
Although some adults have a wheat allergy, it is far more common in children.
The most common symptoms of a wheat allergy include:
- allergic rhinitis, or nasal congestion
- atopic dermatitis, or eczema
- urticaria, or hives, which is an itchy rash with possible swelling
- nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- irritation and possible swelling in the mouth, throat, or both
- watery, itchy eyes
- bloated stomach
Anaphylaxis may also occur, leading to:
- swelling and tightness in the throat
- difficulty swallowing
- tightness and pain in the chest
- difficulty breathing
- pale or bluish skin
- a weak pulse
- a potentially life threatening drop in blood pressure
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. People need to visit a medical professional for treatment.
Several strategies, including some tests, can help a doctor identify a wheat allergy. These include:
- Keeping a food diary: To identify the cause of the allergy, a health professional may ask a person to keep a food diary. This will include notes on the types of food in the diet, the time a person consumes them, and some information about symptoms.
- Pinpointing the source: Next, the person should eliminate all wheat products from their diet. After a few days, they can start reintroducing wheat at intervals. With the support of the food diary, this can help them identify whether or not wheat is responsible for their symptoms. A qualified health professional must oversee this testing.
- Food challenge testing: This usually takes place in the hospital or at a specialized allergy clinic. A person will consume capsules that contain suspected allergens. They start with small doses, gradually increasing their intake over several hours or days. Clinic staff will monitor the individual for symptoms.
- Skin prick testing: A healthcare professional will place drops of diluted food on the person’s arm or back, piercing the skin through the drop. This introduces the food into the system. Any itching, redness, or swelling will probably indicate a wheat allergy. However, the skin prick test is not definitive, so a doctor will likely request other tests for confirmation.
- Blood testing: This can detect antibodies for specific foods. If certain antibodies are present, it indicates that a person is probably allergic to those particular foods.
People with a wheat allergy should avoid food that contains wheat, including:
- most baked products, including cookies, cakes, donuts, muffins, crackers, pretzels, waffles, and bread
- breakfast cereals
- beer, ale, and root beer
- coffee substitutes, malted milk, and instant chocolate drink mixes
- sauces, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, gravies, and condiments, including ketchup
- wheat- or semolina-based couscous, pasta, and noodles
- ice-cream and ice-cream cones
- gelatinized starch and modified food starch
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- processed meats, such as hotdogs
- meat, crab, and shrimp substitutes
- monosodium glutamate
- natural flavorings
- vegetable gum
Barley, oats, and rye also contain some wheat proteins. A person with a wheat allergy may be allergic not just to wheat, but also to rye, oats, and barley.
Before consuming wheat, it is good practice to check the nutrition label of each food to see if it contains wheat or any other grains that have wheat proteins. The manufacturer may have processed certain foods in a facility that also processes wheat.
A wheat allergy is an immune system response. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system mistakes a neutral or beneficial substance for a pathogen and attacks it.
Allergens are substances that cause no harm to most people, unless they have an allergy to it.
An allergic reaction to wheat involves immunoglobulin antibodies reacting to at least one of the following proteins in wheat:
- glutenin, or gluten
Some people are allergic to just one of the proteins in wheat, while others may be allergic to two or more.
The sections below list some of the known triggers of a reaction to wheat.
Wheat and exercise
Some people may have allergic symptoms if they exercise within a few hours of consuming wheat proteins.
This type of allergic reaction often leads to life threatening anaphylaxis.
People who work in bakeries or places with uncooked wheat flour may develop baker’s asthma.
The allergy occurs due to wheat flour inhalation, not ingestion. It tends to affect breathing, and it may occur due to a wheat protein or a fungus.
Medical experts class celiac disease as an autoimmune food sensitivity, rather than an allergy. The immune system reacts to gluten, causing inflammation and damage in the small intestine. This leads to poor absorption of nutrients.
Some people have both celiac disease and a wheat allergy.
The two main risk factors for a wheat allergy are family history and age.
If a close relative has an allergy — such as a wheat allergy, hay fever, or asthma — there is a higher risk that a person will develop a wheat allergy themselves.
Infants and young children are more likely to have a wheat allergy than older adults because their immune and digestive systems have not yet matured. Most children eventually outgrow this allergy, however.
The best treatment for a wheat allergy is to avoid wheat proteins. This can be difficult, as so many foods contain wheat. It is therefore important to check food labels.
Antihistamines can lower an individual’s immune activity, eliminating or reducing the symptoms of allergy. People should take these after exposure to wheat. Also, people should only use antihistamines under the guidance of a physician.
Epinephrine, or adrenaline, is an emergency treatment for anaphylaxis. People with a high risk of anaphylaxis should carry two injectable doses of epinephrine. Adrenaline opens the airways, helping an individual breathe more easily. It also helps restore severely low blood pressure.
A person can administer the medication through an auto-injector pen straight into the skin. One pen contains a single dose of adrenaline, which a person can inject using a concealed, spring-loaded needle. Examples include the EpiPen and the Anapen.
Can a reaction to wheat be fatal?
Yes, depending on the severity of the allergy. If the person is severely allergic to wheat, it can cause anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical attention.Miho Hatanaka, RDN, L.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.