Symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment

A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction caused by the consumption of food products containing wheat. If you are allergic to wheat, you may experience a range of effects after eating wheat, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, 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 to avoid foods that contain wheat. This can be tricky because wheat is present in so many different foods. Your health care provider can prescribe medications for you to take if you accidentally consume wheat. Certain medications can help reduce your symptoms. In the event of anaphylaxis, an injection of epinephrine is the life-saving treatment required, and your provider will prescribe an injector that you can self-administer.

Symptoms

Wheat allergies are more common in young children than in adults. Children often clear up of their wheat allergy as they get older. However, wheat allergies may persist or you may develop a new wheat allergy as an adult.

When you have a wheat allergy, symptoms begin almost immediately after eating wheat products. Effects may be slightly delayed, but usually no longer 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
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

Severe wheat allergies cause wheezing, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the throat and airways. 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 have had repeated inhalation exposures to wheat or flour. This condition can cause respiratory symptoms that mimic ordinary asthma.

Symptoms may include:

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

Wheat allergy associated with exercise

Although rare, there is also a rare form of potentially fatal 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, a feeling of a closed throat, nausea, and vomiting.

causes

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

Here are some examples of foods that can trigger a wheat allergy:

  • Plain flour
  • Enriched Flour
  • Wheat germ
  • Plain flour
  • Semolina
  • Durum wheat
  • Modified starch
  • Fiber
  • couscous
  • Einkorn
  • Embrace
  • farro
  • Kamut
  • Seitan
  • Fu
  • spelled
  • Triticale

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

Allergic reaction to wheat

A wheat allergy occurs when your body’s immune system reacts 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 response that causes the symptoms commonly associated with allergies.

Diagnostic

If you or your child have wheat allergy symptoms, your diagnostic evaluation may involve several steps. If your symptoms are consistent with a food allergy, your health care provider may ask you to keep a detailed list of the foods you eat, as well as a log of your symptoms to aid in the diagnosis.

Diagnostic tests that can help identify a wheat allergy include:

  • Skin test: When you have this test, also called a scratch test, your healthcare provider will prick your skin with tiny needles that contain a small amount of wheat protein. If you have a history consistent with wheat allergy and you develop a red bump on the area that was bitten within 15 minutes, that suggests you are likely allergic to wheat.
  • Blood test: A wheat IgE blood test looks for an immune protein directed against wheat. If you have wheat allergy symptoms and abnormal wheat IgE levels, this is a sign that you have a wheat allergy.

One caveat about blood and skin tests for wheat allergy is that they are sensitive but not very specific tests. This means that some people may test positive for wheat allergy even though they have no history of reacting to wheat. It is not recommended to take a wheat allergy test if you do not have symptoms.

Wheat allergy vs gluten sensitivity

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

There are different gluten-related disorders:

  • Celiac disease, an inflammatory disease usually manifesting with gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a medical condition that is not well defined
  • A skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Gluten ataxia, a gluten-related brain and nerve disorder
  • Gluten intolerance, which is a nonspecific 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 found in many of the same foods, but they are not the same.

  • Wheat is just one of many grains that contain gluten.
  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat, as well as the closely related grains barley and rye.

If you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, this means you should avoid all types of gluten-containing grains; if you are allergic to wheat, you just need to avoid foods containing wheat.

Treatment

Treatment for wheat allergy usually involves avoiding foods that contain wheat. If you have a reaction to some types of wheat but not others, it could be due to the specific component of wheat that triggers your allergy. Work with your healthcare provider to identify wheat-containing foods that you can and cannot eat.

Food Labels and Guidelines

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

Foods labeled “wheat-free” may not be suitable for someone on a gluten-free diet, as they may contain barley or rye.

Medicines for wheat allergy

If you are accidentally exposed to wheat, there are over-the-counter 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 do not replace epinephrine in life-threatening reactions.

People with life-threatening wheat allergies should be prescribed an EpiPen epinephrine auto-injector to wear at all times for immediate use after exposure to wheat or in case of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction after accidental exposure.

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

A word from Verywell

Wheat allergies are increasingly recognized and experts suggest they may also become more common. Wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity are two different problems with overlapping symptoms, causes, and treatments, but are not identical. Speak to your health care provider if you’re not sure what condition you have since your diagnosis makes a major difference in what you can (and can’t) eat.

Verywell Health only uses high quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact check and ensure our content is 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 Immunother Vaccine. 2017;13(10):2462-2466. doi:10.1080/21645515.2017.1356499

Further Reading

By Jane Anderson

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

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