What Is Wheat Allergy? Is It the Same As Celiac Disease?

wheat allergy
Wheat allergy isn't celiac disease. Jasper James/Getty Images

If you have a wheat allergy, it means your body's immune system responds to wheat ingestion with a specific allergic response, resulting in symptoms that can include sniffling, itching, hives, and — in the most serious cases — difficulty breathing and swelling of the throat and airway.

Wheat allergy can also lead to cramps, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms appear quickly — within minutes or (at most) a few hours of wheat ingestion — and can be life-threatening in the worst cases.

It's also an entirely different condition from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Some explanation is in order.

What's the Difference Between Celiac Disease and Wheat Allergy?

There are several different forms of protein in wheat that can cause allergic symptoms, including gluten, the protein responsible for reactions in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

But a wheat allergy isn't the same thing as celiac or gluten sensitivity: the conditions all involve completely separate components of your immune system and different types of reactions (although in some cases, the symptoms can be similar).

Technically, wheat allergy is a true allergy, while celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. People with true wheat allergy can usually eat the grains barley and rye, while people with celiac or gluten sensitivity must avoid those grains along with wheat.

Who Suffers from Wheat Allergy?

It's not clear how many people suffer from wheat allergy, but the condition is more common in young children than in adults: children often grow out of the allergy as they get older.

There's also a rare form of life-threatening wheat allergy that occurs when susceptible people consume wheat and then exercise; symptoms of this exercise-induced anaphylaxis include a rapid, weak pulse, difficulty breathing and feeling as if your throat is closing up, nausea and vomiting. Finally, "baker's asthma," a form of wheat allergy that afflicts people who work in bakeries, or who've experienced repeated inhalation exposures to wheat or flour, can cause respiratory symptoms that mimic regular asthma.

All these forms of wheat allergy are thought to involve the immunoglobulin E, or IgE, form of antibodies in your immune system. Most people with allergies have high IgE levels, although other conditions can cause elevated IgE. Your doctor can test for IgE levels with a simple blood test.

Diagnosing and Treating Wheat Allergy

To diagnose wheat allergy, doctors usually use what's called "skin prick" tests, in which your physician will prick your skin with tiny needles containing a small amount of wheat protein. If you develop a red bump on your skin where it was pricked within 15 minutes, you're likely allergic to wheat. Your doctor may also order IgE or other blood tests to help diagnose wheat allergy, or possibly ask you to keep a detailed list of the foods you eat, along with a record of your symptoms, to aid in diagnosis.

Treatment of wheat allergy usually involves staying away from foods that include wheat. However, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines to help you manage symptoms when you've been exposed.

In addition, if your allergy is severe, or if it can result in potentially life-threatening symptoms, your doctor may recommend that you carry injectable epinephrine in the form of an Epi-Pen to treat yourself immediately upon exposure.

Wheat is considered one of the top eight food allergens in the U.S., so companies must therefore companies disclose when they include a wheat-containing ingredient in a food product. Since many (but not all) gluten-free foods are also wheat-free, people with wheat allergy have benefited from the explosion in gluten-free food products in recent years.

Learn more:

Sources:

Baur X. et al. Baker's asthma: still among the most frequent occupational respiratory disorders. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 1998 Dec;102(6 Pt 1):984-97.

Inomata N. Wheat allergy. Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2009 Jun;9(3):238-43. doi: 10.1097/ACI.0b013e32832aa5bc.

Inomata N. et al. The natural history of wheat allergy. Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 2009 May;102(5):410-5. doi: 10.1016/S1081-1206(10)60513-3.

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