What Is a Wheat Allergy?

A wheat allergy occurs when your immune system has an abnormal reaction to any of the proteins present in wheat. When a person with a wheat allergy comes into contact with wheat, their body perceives the wheat as a threat. The body sends out antibodies to attack it. This immune response can cause many symptoms, some of which are potentially life-threatening.

Although wheat allergy is commonly confused with celiac disease, the two are separate conditions that are diagnosed differently and have different symptoms. Celiac disease causes an abnormal immune response to gluten, which is one of the proteins found in wheat. Celiac disease may not cause immediate symptoms, but causes long-term damage to a person’s intestines. Another condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity causes digestive problems in people who do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy.

The symptoms of wheat allergy can be avoided completely by living a wheat-free lifestyle.

Symptoms of wheat allergy commonly develop with minutes of coming into contact with wheat. The symptoms are similar to those caused by other food allergies, and include:

  • hives or rash
  • irritation of the mouth and throat
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • nasal congestion
  • eye irritation
  • trouble breathing

A severe wheat allergy can also cause anaphylaxis, which can make your throat swell, and can send the body into shock. Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Any exposure to the proteins found in wheat will cause an immune response in your body if you are allergic. Bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals are common foods that have wheat. However, wheat proteins are also found in products and foods that are not immediately obvious, such as cosmetics, ketchup, and ice cream.

Below are some foods and products that could trigger an allergic response in someone with wheat allergy:

  • breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, and muffins
  • breakfast cereals
  • couscous
  • farina, semolina, and spelt
  • beer
  • soy sauce
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • processed meat products, such as hot dogs or cold cuts
  • breaded or crusted proteins
  • dairy products, such as ice cream
  • licorice, jelly beans, and hard candies
  • gelatinized starch and modified food starch
  • vegetable gum

In some people with wheat allergies, symptoms only occur if they exercise in the hours after eating wheat products. Symptoms are often more severe in these cases and may include anaphylaxis. This condition is called wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis.

People are more likely to have a wheat allergy if they come from a family in which allergies to food or other substances are common. You may be more at risk for having a wheat allergy or allergy to another food if allergies or allergic diseases such as asthma or eczema run in your family.

Wheat allergy is more common in children than adults, and about 65 percent of children outgrow the allergy by the time they reach adolescence, according to the American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology.

It is important to get an accurate diagnosis of wheat allergy, so that you can avoid appropriate foods and rule out other conditions such as celiac disease. An allergist will typically diagnose a wheat allergy.

To diagnose a wheat allergy, your allergist will ask you questions about your symptoms and family history to determine whether or not allergies are common in your bloodline.

Because the symptoms of a wheat allergy can overlap with the symptoms of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, your doctor will perform specific diagnostic tests to rule out these conditions and determine that you have wheat allergy. The diagnostic test will either be a skin-prick test, a blood test, or both.

In a skin-prick test, your doctor will inject a small amount of purified wheat protein under the surface of your skin, usually on your forearm or upper back. If the injection site becomes red or swollen, a wheat allergy will be confirmed.

Wheat allergy can also be diagnosed through a blood test. Your doctor will draw a small sample of your blood and test for the specific antibodies that have developed against wheat in your immune system. There is a different blood test that can test specifically for celiac disease.

If you have a wheat allergy, you must adhere to a strict wheat-free diet to avoid the onset of potentially life-threatening symptoms. Fortunately, there are many food options in grocery stores and restaurants for people who must avoid wheat.

Fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, and unpackaged meats are all healthy wheat-free foods. Any packaged food product marked “gluten-free” is, by definition, free of wheat. You can also eat products made from other grains, such as:

  • corn
  • rice
  • quinoa
  • barley
  • rye
  • oats

You can swap out traditional flour for flour made from soy, rice, corn, sorghum, tapioca, potato, or coconut.

It is required by United States law that packaged food products containing wheat have clear labeling that announces the presence of wheat. However, this law does not apply to nonfood products such as cosmetics or bath products, so if you have a severe wheat allergy you should be careful to read the ingredients list or contact the manufacturer if you have any concerns.

Anaphylaxis is the most serious symptom of a wheat allergy and can be life-threatening. A person with wheat allergy can experience anaphylaxis within seconds to minutes of consuming wheat. Anaphylaxis can be treated immediately by injecting a steroid called epinephrine.

When you are diagnosed with a wheat allergy, your doctor will likely give you a prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector. This is so that you or someone around you can administer a shot of epinephrine if you accidentally consume wheat and develop anaphylaxis. You should immediately call 911 after administering epinephrine to someone who is experiencing anaphylaxis. Your doctor will explain how to use the auto-injector and how to care for the person who has consumed wheat until an ambulance arrives.

Common allergy medications, such as antihistamines and corticosteroids, can be used to treat other symptoms of wheat allergy.

The symptoms of a wheat allergy can be unpleasant, but you or your child will quickly learn how to adjust to a wheat-free lifestyle to avoid these symptoms. Being prepared to treat anaphylaxis, if it occurs, will allow you to relax and live a normal life without wheat.