8 Surprising Symptoms of a Gluten Allergy

So you're feeling tired and headachy, and your digestive system has been off for awhile. Maybe you have some other symptoms like a rash or a frequent feeling that your brain is in a fog.

You've heard about gluten or the gluten-free diet, and you know that lots of people are going gluten-free, and you start to wonder if you could also have a gluten allergy.

There are actually five different kinds of gluten allergies, and each has its own distinct set of signs and symptoms. Still, there's plenty of overlap between these five conditions, and many of their symptoms involve the types of sometimes vague problems listed above: digestive issues, skin issues, and neurological issues.

Of course, not everyone with these symptoms will have a gluten allergy, as there are plenty of other possible causes for each. But the possibility is worth considering if you and your doctor can't identify other potential reasons for your problems.

With that, having one or more of these eight symptoms could indicate a gluten allergy. The next step from there is getting tested for a gluten allergy or talking to your doctor about a trial of a gluten-free diet.

1
Dysfunctional Digestion

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Not everyone with a gluten-related issue has digestive problems, but enough people do have this issue to make it number one on our list.

These so-called digestive "problems" can involve diarrhea, constipation, reflux, or simply abdominal pain, and they're frequently seen when you have one of the two most common types of gluten allergy: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These symptoms can range from merely annoying to completely debilitating.

In addition, in some cases, people who've been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome actually have a form of gluten allergy, and when they stop eating gluten, their IBS diminishes or goes away entirely.

It's important to clarify that you do you not need to have digestive symptoms in order to have a gluten allergy. In fact, lots of people have one of the other issues on this list as their primary symptom. But if you do have dysfunctional digestion, it's possible that gluten is the cause.

2
Red, Itchy Bumps

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People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are prone to various forms of skin rashes.

Perhaps the best known (and itchiest and most miserable) of these rashes is an autoimmune skin condition known as dermatitis herpetiformis, or "DH" for short. DH (one of our five different types of gluten allergy) occurs in conjunction with celiac disease. It is an intensely itchy rash that also often "burns" and "stings" and appears as red, water-filled bumps.

The good news is that this uncomfortable rash can be effectively treated with a combination of a medication called dapsone and a gluten-free diet.

Besides dermatitis herpetiformis, there are other rashes linked to celiac disease (or gluten-related disorders), although the association is not scientifically proven, as it is with DH. Examples of these rashes include:

  • Psoriasis
  • Chronic urticaria (hives)
  • Atopic dermatitis

The big picture here is that not every rash is caused by gluten. But if you've got red bumps that just won't go away no matter what you do, you might want to consider your diet as a possible cause.

3
Foggy Brain

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Having a foggy brain means you tend to have difficulty concentrating, or experience short-term memory lapses. You may also find yourself losing your train of thought in conversations or when writing, and you might sometimes become confused or disoriented.

Brain fog is a top symptom in three of the five different types of gluten allergies. In other words, people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and the brain disorder gluten ataxia all report varying degrees of brain fog.

Of course, having brain fog is not a slam dunk indication you have a form of gluten allergy. There is a slew of other conditions that include brain fog as a symptom, including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

But if you do have brain fog (potentially combined with some of these other signs), you might want to consider getting testing for a gluten-related disorder.

4
Pounding Headaches

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Most people get headaches every now and then. But people with gluten allergies, especially those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and to a lesser extent, those with celiac disease, seem to be especially prone to them. In addition, migraines may be triggered by gluten.

To back up this up, a 2013 study in Headache found that 56 percent of people with gluten sensitivity, and 30 percent of those with celiac disease, suffered from chronic headaches compared to 14 percent of people in the control group. About 23 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease also reported chronic headaches.

When the researchers looked specifically for people who had migraine headaches, they found migraines occurred in 21 percent of people with celiac disease and 14 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease. (Some people with IBD feel better when they follow the gluten-free diet.)

So, since certain foods can cause headaches and migraines in those who are susceptible, it's only logical to also consider gluten as a potential trigger.

5
Pins and Needles

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It's pretty common to have your foot or hand "fall asleep" every once in a while, but people who have a gluten allergy may have permanent "pins and needles" in their arms, legs, or feet.

This pins and needles problem in your hands and feet is called peripheral neuropathy. When you have peripheral neuropathy, you may experience intermittent or constant tingling in your extremities or even numbness as the nerve damage progresses.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs in up to fifty percent of those with the celiac disease form of gluten allergy, and in the vast majority of those with the gluten ataxia. It's not clear how many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also have peripheral neuropathy, but doctors treating people with this condition report it's quite common as well.

Of course, simply having your foot fall asleep occasionally doesn't mean you have a gluten allergy. In fact, peripheral neuropathy is quite common. For example, it's closely associated with diabetes. It can also be caused by injuries, kidney disorders, and vitamin deficiencies, among other conditions.

All in all, if you don't have another potential explanation for your peripheral neuropathy, you might want to talk with your doctor about whether it could be caused by gluten. Nerve damage can be difficult to heal, but some studies (not all) indicate that you may be able to slow or stop the damage by following a gluten-free diet.

6
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

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Studies show that people with newly diagnosed celiac disease are more likely than average to suffer from symptoms of ADHD, and those symptoms tend to improve or disappear entirely once the person begins eating gluten-free.

It's less clear whether people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity might have ADHD symptoms that are relieved by the gluten-free diet, as medical research simply hasn't resolved that question. Many parents report success when they remove gluten from their ADHD-diagnosed children's diets, regardless of what research has (or hasn't) yet shown.

But this effect could simply be due to the elimination of highly-sugared, un-nutritious processed foods, the majority of which happen to have gluten in them.

The bottom line is that going gluten-free may help your ADHD if you have celiac disease, and it may help your symptoms if you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or possibly another form of gluten allergy).

Although the use of diet to treat ADHD is controversial (and some recent studies haven't shown a benefit), it might be worth talking to your doctor about whether eliminating gluten could help.

7
Depression and Anxiety

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Depression and anxiety are common psychiatric problems. In fact, about 18 percent of the overall U.S. adult population has an anxiety disorder ​and nearly 7 percent of U.S. adults have major depressive disorder. But are these two disorders linked to the different forms of gluten allergy?

You may be surprised to learn that lots of studies have found links between celiac disease, depression, and anxiety, both in adults and in teens. There may also be links between these conditions and gluten ataxia, a neurological gluten allergy primarily involving loss of motor skills.

And people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity also report depression and anxiety levels that seem to be higher than those in the general population, although as of yet there's no scientific research to back up those observations.

So what does all this mean? Well, as with the other health problems on our list of gluten allergy signs, it may not mean anything. But if you do have depression or anxiety, it can't hurt to talk with your doctor about whether one of the types of gluten allergy could be to blame.

8
Infertility and Trouble Conceiving

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There's a strong connection between infertility and celiac disease, which is perhaps the best-accepted form of gluten allergy.

Both women and men who've been diagnosed with celiac disease are known to struggle with infertility. It's possible that celiac-associated malnutrition may play some role in this struggle, but doctors aren't entirely sure what actually causes infertility in people with celiac disease.

When it comes to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the picture is murkier. Even though some healthcare providers believe they're connected, there just simply isn't much medical research on this form of gluten allergy and infertility.

The good news is that if you're diagnosed with celiac disease, going gluten-free may help you conceive, as studies have shown that the gluten-free diet helps with fertility in both men and women.

If you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet may help you and your partner conceive, but there is no robust scientific evidence to support this yet. In any event, it may be worth discussing the possibility with your OB-GYN.

9
You Might Have a Gluten Allergy—What Now?

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First, you should see your doctor so you can talk about your symptoms and family history (celiac disease is definitely genetic). Your doctor may recommend you be tested for celiac disease, and to do that, you'll need to keep eating gluten until all your testing is complete.

If you have a rash that looks like these dermatitis herpetiformis photos, you may want to see a dermatologist as well. She can test the rash to see if it is really caused by gluten.

Diagnosing gluten ataxia is less straightforward, and some neurologists haven't accepted the condition. If you test negative for celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis but have symptoms of gluten ataxia, your physician may recommend you try the gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms improve.

Finally, there is still no accepted diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Although, researchers are working to develop one. So at the moment, it's a diagnosis of exclusion, which means your doctor will exclude other possible conditions (including celiac disease) before considering gluten sensitivity.

A Word From Verywell

The ultimate test for all types of gluten allergies will be your response to the gluten-free diet. If your symptoms clear up, that's a pretty good indicator that gluten is a problem for you.

Lastly, it's important to note that sticking to a gluten-free diet can be tricky at first, but is completely doable. Talk with your doctor about seeing a dietician who can help you choose foods and recipes that not only taste yummy but are healthy and free of gluten.

Sources:

Biesiekierski J. et al. Gluten Causes Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Subjects Without Celiac Disease: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2011 Mar;106(3):508-14; quiz 515.

Caproni M, Bonciolini V, D'Errico A, Antiga E, Fabbri P. Celiac disease and dermatologic manifestations: Many skin clue to unfold gluten-sensitive enteropathy. Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2012;2012:952753.

Niederhofer H. Association of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and celiac disease: a brief report. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2011;13(3).

Sapone A et. al .Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine. 2012 Feb 7;10:13.

Volta U, Bardella MT, Calabró A, Troncone R, Corazza GR, The Study Group for Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. An Italian prospective multicenter survey on patients suspected of having non-celiac gluten sensitivity. BMC Med. 2014;12:85.

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