What is wheat allergy?
A wheat allergy develops when your body, specifically your immune system, overreacts to the wheat you have eaten. This wheat could be found in foods such as cereal, pasta and bread. Your body’s overreaction could be in the form of hives, tongue, lip or throat swelling, stomach pain or something else. Currently there is no definitive, well-supported cure for wheat allergy, although food desensitization is being researched.
How common is wheat allergy?
Wheat allergy is most common in children but anyone can develop an allergy. Typically about two-thirds of children outgrow it. Some people with wheat allergy can eat other grains.
What are the risk factors of having a wheat allergy?
The risk of having a wheat allergy is greater if both your parents have allergies. If only one parent has allergies, your risk is lower.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of a wheat allergy?
Symptoms of wheat allergy vary from person to person. They range from mild to severe and even deadly. The following are potential symptoms of someone with an allergic reaction to wheat:
- Hives or skin rash
- Stomach cramps
- Stuffy or runny nose
These symptoms typically occur within 30-45 minutes of eating wheat, and each time ingestion takes place. Anaphylaxis – which can cause your body to go into shock due to low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, airway collapse or throat closing – is a life-threatening symptom of wheat allergy. During this reaction, your body releases chemicals that can lower blood pressure and narrow your airways.
What are the causes of wheat allergy?
Wheat allergy is caused when your body senses wheat as a dangerous and foreign substance and creates an immunoglobulin against it.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is a wheat allergy diagnosed?
An allergist will be able to tell you if you have an allergy or if it is another ailment.
- The allergist will ask about your medical history. This includes information about allergies your parents may have.
- The allergist will order a skin-prick test or a blood test. During the skin-prick test, a small amount of liquid containing wheat protein is placed on your back or forearm. It is then pricked with a small, sterile probe. If a raised, reddish mark forms, it could mean you are allergic to wheat.
- For the blood test, a blood sample is sent to a laboratory. The test checks for the presence of immunoglobulin E antibodies to wheat protein. The results tell the allergist if there is a wheat allergy.
- If these two tests do not give conclusive results, another test called a graded oral challenge may be performed. You would eat a small amount of wheat and see if a reaction develops. This food challenge takes place under medical supervision, since a severe reaction could occur.
Management and Treatment
How is wheat allergy managed?
Managing wheat allergy means strictly avoiding wheat ingredients in food and nonfood goods. By law, manufacturers must include the presence of wheat on the ingredient label of packaged foods sold in the U.S. Wheat is found in a variety of food products such as pasta, crackers and some varieties of ice cream and hot dogs.
Other things to watch for in managing a wheat allergy:
- For nonfood items, such as Play-Doh, where wheat is an ingredient, the labeling law does not apply. If unsure of the ingredients in a nonfood item, the manufacturer’s website or customer service center at the company will be able to give you more accurate product ingredients.
- If you have a wheat allergy, you should also avoid products with cautionary labeling such as “made on shared equipment with wheat.” Not all manufacturers use this voluntary labeling.
- When baking with a wheat allergy, you would need to use substitute grains such as soy, potato starch or rice. In addition when grocery shopping, you would need to be aware of selecting foods with grains other than wheat, such as oats, rye and barley.
- Always read labeling on food and nonfood items and call the manufacturer if uncertain certain ingredients. As another precaution, always wash your hands and surfaces you touch to prevent accidental exposure to the allergen.
How is wheat allergy treated?
The first line of treatment is avoidance. This may be difficult and accidental exposures can occur. Patients with a severe allergy may experience anaphylaxis with even small accidental exposures. All allergic individuals should be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector and be taught how and when to use it
Your allergist may also prescribe an antihistamine or corticosteroids to help with symptoms. However, these will not treat anaphylaxis.
Outlook / Prognosis
How do you live with wheat allergy?
Living with wheat allergy can be challenging, as symptoms can range from mild to severe. There is no way to predict how your body will react. One exposure to wheat may show a severe reaction and the next exposure a mild reaction. However, with caution and education, you can live a fulfilling life. Your allergist can recommend resources, support groups and dietitians who can help you with your day-to-day meals.