An Overview of Wheat Allergy

Wheat allergy and gluten allergy are not the same

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A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction that is induced by eating food products that contain wheat. If you have a wheat allergy, you might experience a range of effects after eating wheat, including an upset stomach, a rash, wheezing, and swelling.

Diagnosis can be tricky because wheat is present in so many different foods. The best way to manage a wheat allergy is by avoiding foods that contain wheat. If you develop a reaction, however, medication can help reduce your symptoms.

While the conditions are often confused with each other, a wheat allergy is not the same as gluten sensitivity. A wheat allergy is a true immune reaction to wheat protein, while gluten sensitivity is gluten-induced damage to the body.

Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Allergy
Verywell / Gary Ferster

Symptoms

Wheat allergies are more common among young children than adults. Children often grow out of their wheat allergy as they get older. However, wheat allergies can persist and you can develop a new wheat allergy during your adult years.

When you have a wheat allergy, the symptoms begin almost immediately after eating wheat products. The effects can be slightly delayed, but usually by no more than a few hours.

Symptoms that can be induced by a wheat allergy include:

  • Sniffling, runny nose, and/or itchy nose
  • Red or watery eyes
  • Skin itching, redness, or hives.
  • Abdominal cramps, nausea, or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Serious wheat allergies cause wheezing, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the throat and airway. This is a dangerous anaphylactic reaction that requires immediate medical intervention.

Baker's Asthma

A form of wheat allergy described as baker's asthma can affect people who've experienced repeated inhalation exposures to wheat or flour. This condition can cause respiratory symptoms that mimic regular asthma.

Symptoms can include:

  • Wheezing
  • A hoarse voice
  • Trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the nasal passages, tongue, or throat

Exercise-Associated Wheat Allergy

While it is uncommon, 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, feeling as if your throat is closing up, nausea and vomiting. 

Causes

If you have a wheat allergy, your symptoms will be triggered by eating wheat, and in rare instances, by inhaling it (as in baker's asthma). Wheat is a popular grain used to make a wide variety of different foods. It can be found in cereal, pasta, bread, soup, and stews. And many products that are used for cooking and baking also contain wheat.

Examples of foods that can trigger a wheat allergy include:

  • Flour
  • Enriched Flour
  • Wheat germ
  • Farina
  • Semolina
  • Drum
  • Modified starch
  • Bran
  • Couscous
  • Einkorn
  • Emmer
  • Farro
  • Kamut
  • Seitan
  • Fu
  • Spelt
  • Triticale

Wheat contains a number of different components. In fact, there are at least 27 different potential allergens (substances that elicit an allergy) found in wheat, and not everyone reacts to the same ones.

Allergic Reaction to Wheat

A wheat allergy occurs when your body responds to a component of wheat as if it were a harmful substance. If you have a wheat allergy, an immune response similar to that which would normally fight off infections is mounted after exposure to wheat.

Like most food allergies, a wheat allergy involves immunoglobulin E (IgE), an immune protein made by your body. This protein triggers a rapid immune reaction that causes the symptoms that are commonly associated with allergies.

Diagnosis

If you or your child has symptoms of a wheat allergy, your diagnostic evaluation may involve several strategies. If your symptoms correspond to a food allergy, your doctor may ask you to keep a detailed list of the foods you eat, along with a record of your symptoms, to aid in diagnosis.

Diagnostic tests that may help identify a wheat allergy include:

Skin prick test: When you have this test, which is also called a scratch test, your doctor will prick your skin with tiny needles containing a small amount of wheat protein. If you develop a red bump on the area that was pricked within 15 minutes, this suggests that you're likely allergic to wheat.

Blood test: Your doctor may also order blood tests to look for signs of inflammation, such as white blood cells and IgE. Most people with allergies have high IgE levels, so this test can help your doctors identify allergies, but will not necessarily show that your allergy is caused by wheat.

Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is not an allergy. There are four gluten-related disorders: celiac disease (a digestive problem), non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis, and gluten ataxia (gluten-related brain and nerve disorder).

Wheat and gluten are present in many of the same foods, but they are not identical. Gluten is a protein that is present in wheat—and also in the closely related grains barley and rye.

While wheat allergy involves IgE, gluten sensitivity does not involve this antibody. Gluten sensitivity occurs when gluten directly damages the small intestine in celiac disease or causes a non-IgE mediated reaction in non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten-induced dermatitis, or ataxia.

Treatment

Treatment of wheat allergy usually involves staying away from foods that include wheat. If you have a reaction to certain types of wheat, but not others, it could be due to the specific component in wheat that triggers your allergy. Work with your doctor to identify which wheat-containing foods you can and can't eat.

Keep in mind that some people can tolerate small amounts of wheat, while others can't tolerate any at all. Adjusting your diet requires knowing whether you can handle any wheat.

If you become exposed to wheat accidentally, there are over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments you can use to manage your reaction.

Food Labels and Guidelines

If you have been diagnosed with a wheat allergy, you need to avoid foods that contain wheat. Wheat is considered one of the top food allergens in the U.S., and companies must disclose wheat-containing ingredients on their labels.

While there are many foods that contain wheat and gluten, there are gluten-free foods that contain wheat—because wheat starch may be processed to remove the gluten protein. These foods may be safe for someone with celiac disease or another type of gluten sensitivity but may be unsafe for a person that has a wheat allergy.

Just as foods that are labeled "gluten-free" aren't always suitable for someone who needs to be completely wheat-free, foods that are labeled "wheat-free" may not be suitable for someone who follows a gluten-free diet because they may contain barley or rye.

Medication for a Wheat Allergy

Your doctor may recommend OTC or prescription antihistamines to help you manage symptoms in case you are exposed to wheat. If your allergy is severe, your doctor may recommend that you carry injectable epinephrine in the form of an EpiPen so you can treat yourself immediately upon exposure to wheat.

Immunotherapy or immunomodulation, which is a strategy that may reduce the immune reaction, is being studied in experimental research and may hold promise in the management of wheat allergies.

A Word From Verywell

Wheat allergies are becoming more recognized, and experts suggest that they may be becoming more common too. Wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity are two different problems with overlapping, but not identical, symptoms, causes, and treatments. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure which condition you have since your diagnosis makes a major difference in what you can (and can't) eat.

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