When you eat wheat do you notice digestive discomfort? Do you ever sneeze, wheeze or have a rash after consuming pizza, bread or other wheat based foods? If so, then you may be experiencing wheat allergy symptoms. A wheat allergy is fundamentally different from celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, but it comes with it’s own serious challenges and consequences.
Use the following index to skip to one of these specific sections:
- Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Intolerance
- Wheat Allergy Symptoms
- Exercise-Induced Anaphylaxis
- Take The Quiz
Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Intolerance
Unfortunately you’ll find tons of misleading information on the web where people use the terms celiac disease, gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy interchangeably. They’ll even combine disparate terms with the misnomer gluten allergy. However, these are not all the same condition. Gluten intolerance is basically an umbrella term for these conditions, but celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and a wheat allergy are all separate and distinct health conditions.
A wheat allergy is a histamine-based allergic reaction known as a type I hypersensitivity, which implies that it triggers an immediate response. When a person with this allergy ingests wheat, a hypersensitive immune system produces antibodies known as IgE (Immunoglobulin E). When histamine stimulates H1 and H2 receptors, it triggers an inflammatory response in your body. Histamine helps dilate blood vessels so that white blood cells (in this case mast cells and basophils, specifically) can fight off the allergy trigger (called the allergen or antigen). As a result, more fluids enter the cells and skin. This causes swelling and other symptoms, which may cascade in severity (untreated anaphylactic shock can be fatal).
A wheat allergy is one of the more common food allergies found in children. Some children will outgrow it, if so this usually happens between age 3 to 5. It’s not uncommon for children with a wheat allergy to have other food allergies as well. A wheat allergy is less common in adolescents and adults.
Although most people associate Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS) with allergies to fruits, nuts and vegetables, a wheat allergy may also manifest as a cross-reactive condition of OAS. Oral Allergy Syndrome is sometimes referred to as Pollen Foods Allergy Syndrome.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system of a patient who ingested gluten (a composite protein found in grassy grains like wheat, spelt, rye and barley) produces excessive antibodies, which attack the walls of the small intestine (and possibly the cerebellum as well — see my Gluten Ataxia guide).
Over time exposure to gluten causes significant damage to the villi (and microvilli) along the lining of the small intestines and can lead to frustrating gastrointestinal problems at first and then serious malnutrition, which then cascades into a long list of more severe consequences. The symptoms of celiac disease include (but are not limited to) general digestive distress, indigestion, bloating, alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, nutritional deficiencies like anemia, osteoporosis and weight loss. Celiac disease is a serious condition that can lead to further health conditions if not treated in a timely manner.
One problem with identifying celiac disease symptoms in adults is that they may not manifest in an obvious way at first, which leads many people to misunderstand their condition until serious damage to their small intestine has already begun.
Gluten sensitivity is similar to celiac disease and many people use the two terms interchangeably, although recent research suggests a gluten sensitivity can manifest as a distinct entity separate from celiac sprue disease (it is referred to as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, or NCGS). The difference is that people with a gluten sensitivity may have similar symptoms to someone with celiac disease, yet an intestinal biopsy exhibits a different biomarker within the intestinal villi.
What this means is that one can test negative for the various celiac disease tests (antibody check, intestinal biopsy, and celiac gene check — see gluten intolerance test for more on celiac testing), but still experience some degree of impairing gluten sensitivity. You can read more about ways gluten intolerance may occur even when celiac disease is not present by reading my article on Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance.
The biggest distinction here is that a wheat allergy is specifically an allergy; you will have an immediate response to consuming a product with wheat in it. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease and a non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a different immune response than an allergy, which means that with these two conditions you may not feel the impact of exposure for hours or even days after you eat something with gluten in it.
Wheat Allergy Symptoms
If you suffer from a wheat allergy, here are some of the symptoms you can expect:
- Eczema or atopic dermatitis
- Hives (Urticaria), skin rash or itchy skin
- Intestinal bloating or cramping
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy tongue
- Nausea or vomiting in severe cases
- Sensation of a racing heart
- Stomach discomfort
- Swelling in the face, mouth or throat
As with any allergy one of the most immediate concerns is anaphylactic shock, as it can be deadly in some cases. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include swelling of the throat, trouble breathing or swallowing, tightness or pain in the chest, pale skin color, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat.
Anyone who knows they may be susceptible to an anaphylactic allergy reaction should carry injectable epinephrine, or an EpiPen. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis it is important to get medical attention immediately, even if an epinephrine shot has been used.
Anaphylactic shock is scary because it can occur so quickly. This is why it is important to have a proper diagnosis. If you suspect you or your child may have a wheat allergy, or any other allergy, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis so you know what to do to avoid a reaction or how to treat an unexpected exposure.
Some people experience what is called wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. People with this specific form of wheat allergy only notice symptoms if they exercise during the first few hours after eating wheat. One of two things happens in this case, either the exercise intensifies the immune response to wheat or it causes changes in the body that triggers an allergic reaction. People with this type of reaction may also experience an anaphylactic reaction if they consume wheat and aspirin together.
It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis if you suspect a food allergy or sensitivity. Your doctor can use specific tests to get an accurate diagnosis so you can properly treat the condition.
One of the common ways to test for an allergy is with a skin test. With this test tiny drops of a purified form of the allergen are pricked either on or into the surface of the skin. After about 15 minutes the doctor will examine that area of skin to look for any signs of an allergic reaction.
If there is a skin condition, concern of interaction with medications or if a person has had a positive skin test for a variety of foods the doctor may opt to do a blood test. The blood test will screen for allergen-specific antibodies.
If a food allergy is suspected to be the cause of your symptoms the doctor may ask you to keep a detailed food diary or recommend an elimination diet. A food diary should list what and when you eat along with a list of symptoms and when you experienced them. An elimination diet excludes common food allergens that are slowly added back into your diet based on your doctor’s recommendation.
The most effective treatment for a wheat allergy is to completely avoid wheat. Unfortunately this can be challenging both because wheat is used in so many of the foods we regularly eat and because it is hidden in many unexpected foods and even in some cosmetics. Besides the obvious foods like bread, pizza, pasta, cereal, cookies, muffins and cake wheat may also be found in the following:
- Candies like jelly beans, licorice or hard candy
- Condiments like ketchup
- Dairy products like ice cream
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Modified food starch or gelatinized starch
- Natural flavorings or spices
- Processed meat like cold cuts or hot dogs
- Soy sauce
- Vegetable gum
People who have an allergy to wheat may also be allergic to grains with similar proteins like barley, spelt or rye. Oats may be a problem as well because of the proteins they contain but also because they are commonly cross-contaminated and may contain traces of wheat.
Fortunately, today you will find many products on the market that are gluten or wheat-free. At first, it may be easiest to do more of your own cooking and avoid eating out. You will experience a learning curve as you discover which foods contain wheat or gluten — particularly when eating at restaurants. I suggest you peruse my gluten free pantry to help you get started on gluten-free and wheat-free cooking.
Until you develop the knowledge and skills to live wheat-free or if aren’t yet sure that wheat is causing your allergic reactions, you might consider taking an antihistamine, such as Benedryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (loratadine), Allegra (fexofenadine) or Zyrtec (cetirizine). But please discuss this suggestion with a pharmacist or better yet your doctor. You should never prescribe yourself medication by what you read on the Internet without consulting an in-person medical professional first. Also, please note that antihistamines are useless for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
You might also consider that medications often have side-effects and their own consequences. So you should not take any of those antihistamines without serious consideration. You should carefully weigh their benefits against their side-effects before deciding to proceed with one of them. If you would prefer a natural alternative to antihistamine medications you might look into quercetin, a plant-derived flavonoid found in foods like grapefruit, green tea, apples, and red onions. I’ve heard it works well, but it won’t be as potent as the aforementioned allergy medications and I’ve heard some people complain about mild heartburn when they take quercetin. In fact, it seems to bother my stomach a little.
Once you understand the cause of your allergic reaction, avoiding the consequences by avoiding exposure to wheat will become easier. By respecting your wheat allergy symptoms and adhering to a strict wheat-free diet, you may never have to suffer another wheat allergic reaction again.
Take The Quiz!
Test Your Understanding of a Wheat Allergy
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Right away or within a few hours
Within a couple of days
Over time you'll notice symptoms after repeated exposure
Swelling of the face, mouth or throat
All of these
Anxiety over experiencing symptoms in public
Repeated exposure causing damage to your intestinal tract
All of these