Wheat Allergy: What to Know About the Symptoms, Diet, and More
Food allergies are more common than you may realize, affecting as many as 15 million Americans including nearly 6 million children under the age of 18. While over 170 different foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions, some of the most common are milk, eggs, peanuts, and wheat.
Keep reading to learn what a wheat allergy really is, what symptoms it causes, and what dietary changes are necessary to treat it.
What is a Wheat Allergy?
Wheat allergies are most commonly diagnosed in children although, in many cases, the child outgrows the allergy before they reach adulthood. Symptoms of wheat allergies range in severity and they can be unpredictable. Some people experience severe reactions even with the slightest exposure while others have mild symptoms that occur more sporadically.
A wheat allergy occurs when the body’s immune system becomes mistakenly sensitized to wheat and overacts when it is detected in the body. What makes wheat allergies tricky is the fact that the body can react to any number of substances in wheat. In most cases, these reactions are caused by a certain type of protein found in wheat such as the following:
While most people with wheat allergies develop reactions to either albumin or globulin, it is entirely possible to be allergic to both or to one of those proteins and another from the list. Allergies to gliadin and glutenin are less common, though these proteins are implicated in other immune disorders.
How Does It Differ from Gluten Intolerance or Celiac Disease?
It is very common for people to confuse wheat allergies with gluten intolerance. Given that gliadin and glutenin (the two proteins that make up wheat gluten) are also found in wheat, this is not surprising. You just need to remember that it is technically possible to be allergic to wheat but not gluten. Immune reactions to gluten are typically classified as gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, or celiac disease.
But what exactly is the difference between a wheat allergy and gluten intolerance or celiac disease?
An allergic reaction to wheat occurs when the immune system produces immunoglobulin (IgE) antibodies in response to one of the proteins found in wheat. Common symptoms of this allergic reaction include the following:
- Nasal congestion
- Irritation of the mouth and throat
- Hives or rash
- Nausea and vomiting
- Eye irritation
- Difficulty breathing
If the reaction is very severe, it may cause anaphylaxis which triggers severe swelling in the throat which can restrict your breathing and it can also send your body into shock. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical treatment, often with adrenaline (an EpiPen being the brand name version).
Though a wheat allergy is caused by a reaction to specific proteins and is a well-defined medical condition, reactions to gluten are less strictly defined. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, for example, has no diagnostic test or specific biomarkers but it may trigger an immune response to gluten that is less severe than a wheat allergy and separate from celiac disease. Gluten intolerance is considered a more severe form of gluten sensitivity and causes a similar immune reaction.
While gluten intolerance is an immune reaction triggered by gluten, it does not cause damage to the lining of the small intestine – this is a hallmark of celiac disease. To diagnose celiac disease, you must first have a blood test to check for IgE antibodies. If that comes back positive, you’ll need an endoscopy to check for intestinal damage to confirm the diagnosis.
How Are Wheat Allergies Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no medication you can take to stop your body from having a reaction if you are allergic to wheat. The best treatment for a wheat allergy is to avoid wheat and wheat products.
A wheat-free diet overlaps with a gluten-free diet in many ways, though you won’t need to avoid barley and rye (these grains also contain gluten). Here are some of the common foods you’ll need to avoid if you are going wheat-free:
- Wheat flour
- Semolina flour
- Bulgur Farina Einkorn Kamut Durum Triticale Couscous Bread and breadcrumbs Cakes and cookies Breakfast cereal Cereal bars Pasta Crackers Soy sauce Wheatgrass Wheat berries Wheat bran Beer Baking mixes Sauces Gravy Imitation crab meat Breaded food Fried food Seasonings Flavoring
In addition to avoiding foods that contain wheat, you should also avoid foods that have come into contact with wheat or wheat products – this is called cross-contamination. Every person’s body is different, so you’ll need to learn how your body responds to wheat and wheat products as an individual.
If you accidentally ingest wheat, it probably won’t take long for your body to react. Some people develop nausea or diarrhea almost immediately while others develop an itchy throat, rash, or swollen eyes. If you have a severe allergy and your body starts to go into shock, you’ll need to inject adrenaline to keep your airway open – you can do this via an EpiPen.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
What many people don’t know about wheat allergies is that they can sometimes be induced by exercise. For some people, they do not develop any symptoms related to their wheat allergy unless they exercise within a few hours of ingestion. Exercise induces changes in the body which can either trigger an allergic reaction or worsen one that has already started. This is called wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis and it can be life-threatening.
Even if you don’t currently experience an allergic reaction to wheat products, you could still develop one. Wheat allergies sometimes take time to develop – as you continue to eat wheat, the level of wheat antibodies in your body will continue to rise until it reaches a critical level and causes a reaction. At that point, you may develop respiratory, gastrointestinal, or even skin-related symptoms.
There are a number of different ways to diagnose a wheat allergy. One option is to simply keep a food journal in which you record the foods you eat and your body’s reaction – if you notice certain symptoms from the list above after you eat wheat, you may have a wheat allergy. You can also go to an allergy clinic or hospital for food allergy testing or a skin-prick test. If all else fails, a blood test may be used to detect antibodies for wheat.
Whether you suffer from wheat allergies or celiac disease, you’ll most likely be following a gluten free diet for the rest of your life. Luckily, food manufacturers like Schär make it easy to find gluten free alternatives to your favorite foods.