Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat. Avoiding wheat is the primary treatment for wheat allergy. Medications may be necessary to manage allergic reactions when you accidentally eat wheat.
Wheat allergy may sometimes be confused with celiac disease, but these conditions are different. A wheat allergy generates an allergy-causing antibody to proteins found in wheat. But, one particular protein in wheat — gluten — causes an abnormal immune system reaction in the small intestines of people with celiac disease.
If you or your child has wheat allergy, you or your child will likely experience symptoms within a few minutes to a few hours after eating something containing wheat. Wheat allergy symptoms include:
- Swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat
- Hives, itchy rash or swelling of the skin
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Difficulty breathing
- Cramps, nausea or vomiting
An allergic reaction is somewhat like a case of mistaken identity by your body’s immune system. Normally, your immune system generates antibodies to protect your body against bacteria, viruses or toxic substances.
If you have wheat allergy, your body creates an allergy-causing antibody to a protein found in wheat. In other words, your immune system mistakenly identifies this protein as something that could harm you. Once your body develops an allergy-causing antibody to a particular agent (allergen) — in this case, a wheat protein — your immune system is sensitive to it. When you eat wheat, your immune system mounts an attack.
There are four different classes of proteins in wheat that can cause allergies: albumin, globulin, gliadin and gluten. Any of them can cause an allergic reaction.
Sources of wheat proteins
Some sources of wheat proteins are obvious, such as bread, but all wheat proteins — and gluten in particular — may be used in a number of prepared foods and sometimes in cosmetics. Foods that may include wheat proteins include:
- Cakes and muffins
- Breakfast cereals
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Soy sauce
- Condiments, such as ketchup
- Meat products, such as hot dogs or cold cuts
- Dairy products, such as ice cream
- Natural flavorings
- Gelatinized starch
- Modified food starch
- Vegetable gum
- Jelly beans
- Hard candies
If you have a wheat allergy, you may also be allergic to other grains with similar proteins. These related grains include:
Certain factors may put you at greater risk of developing a wheat allergy:
- Family history. You’re at increased risk of allergy to wheat or other foods if your parents have any food allergies or other allergies such as hay fever.
- Age. Wheat allergy is most common in babies and toddlers, who have immature immune and digestive systems. Most children outgrow wheat allergy.
When to see a doctor
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate care. People who already know they can have an anaphylactic reaction to wheat or another allergy-causing substance should carry two injectable doses of a drug called epinephrine (adrenaline). The second dose is a backup in case emergency services aren’t immediately available.
If someone has signs of anaphylaxis, call 911 or your local emergency number. Emergency care is essential even if the person has just used an epinephrine shot.
If you suspect that you or your child is allergic to wheat or another food, see your doctor. A number of conditions can cause signs or symptoms associated with wheat allergy. So, an accurate diagnosis is important.