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 nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a rash, wheezing, and swelling. In severe cases, you may have anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

The best way to manage a wheat allergy is by avoiding foods that contain wheat. This can be tricky because wheat is present in so many different foods. Your health care provider can prescribe medication for you to take if you accidentally consume wheat. Certain medications can help reduce your symptoms. In cases of anaphylaxis, an epinephrine injection is the required life-saving treatment, and your provider will prescribe an injector that you can self-administer.

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, or 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
  • Durum
  • 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's immune system responds to a component of wheat as if it were a harmful substance.

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 steps. If your symptoms correspond to a food allergy, your healthcare provider 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 healthcare provider will prick your skin with tiny needles containing a small amount of wheat protein. If you have a history consistent with a wheat allergy and 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: A blood test for wheat IgE looks for an immune protein that's directed against wheat. If you have symptoms of a wheat allergy and abnormal wheat IgE levels, this is a sign that you have a wheat allergy.

One caveat of both blood and skin testing for wheat allergy is that they are both sensitive tests but not very specific. This means that some people can test positive for wheat allergy even if they have no history of wheat reactions. It is not recommended to have a test for wheat allergy if you don't have symptoms.

Wheat Allergy vs. Gluten Sensitivity

While the conditions are often confused with each other, a wheat allergy is not the same as gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is not an allergy.

There are different gluten-related disorders:

  • Celiac disease, an inflammatory condition usually manifesting with gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a medical condition that isn't well defined
  • A skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Gluten ataxia, a gluten-related brain and nerve disorder
  • Gluten intolerance, which is a non-specific description of gluten-related symptoms

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.

Wheat and gluten are present in many of the same foods, but they are not identical.

  • Wheat is only one of several grains that contain gluten.
  • Gluten is a protein that is present in wheat—and also in the closely related grains barley and rye.

If you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, this means you have to avoid all types of gluten-containing grains; if you have a wheat allergy, you only need to avoid wheat-containing foods.

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 healthcare provider to identify which wheat-containing foods you can and can't eat.

Food Labels and Guidelines

Wheat is considered one of the top food allergens in the U.S., and companies must disclose wheat-containing ingredients on their labels.

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

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

Over-the-counter antihistamines like Zyrtec (cetirizine) can be used to treat mild symptoms like hives but are not a substitute for epinephrine in life-threatening reactions.

People with a life-threatening wheat allergy should be prescribed an EpiPen epinephrine auto-injector to carry at all times for use immediately upon exposure to wheat or in the event of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction after accidental exposure.

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 healthcare provider if you're not sure which condition you have since your diagnosis makes a major difference in what you can (and can't) eat.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Salcedo G, Quirce S, Diaz-perales A. Wheat allergens associated with Baker's asthma. J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol. 2011;21(2):81-92.

  3. Scherf KA, Brockow K, Biedermann T, Koehler P, Wieser H. Wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Clin Exp Allergy. 2016;46(1):10-20. doi:10.1111/cea.12640

  4. Pacharn P, Vichyanond P. Immunotherapy for IgE-mediated wheat allergy. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2017;13(10):2462-2466. doi:10.1080/21645515.2017.1356499

Additional Reading

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.