Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat. Allergic reactions can be caused by eating wheat, but also, in some cases, by inhaling wheat flour.
Avoiding wheat is the primary treatment for wheat allergy, but that isn't always as easy as it sounds. Wheat is found in many foods, including some you might not suspect, such as soy sauce, ice cream and hot dogs. Medications may be necessary to manage allergic reactions if you accidentally eat wheat.
Wheat allergy sometimes is confused with celiac disease, but these conditions differ. Wheat allergy occurs when your body produces antibodies to proteins found in wheat. In celiac disease, a specific protein in wheat — gluten — causes a different kind of abnormal immune system reaction.
A child or adult with wheat allergy is likely to develop signs and symptoms within minutes to hours after eating something containing wheat. Wheat allergy symptoms include:
- Swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat
- Hives, itchy rash or swelling of the skin
- Nasal congestion
- Difficulty breathing
- Cramps, nausea or vomiting
For some people, wheat allergy may cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. In addition to other signs and symptoms of wheat allergy, anaphylaxis may cause:
- Swelling or tightness of the throat
- Chest pain or tightness
- Severe difficulty breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Pale, blue skin color
- Dizziness or fainting
When to see a doctor
If someone shows signs of anaphylaxis, call 911 or your local emergency number. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate care.
If you suspect that you or your child is allergic to wheat or another food, see your doctor.
If you have wheat allergy, exposure to a wheat protein primes your immune system for an allergic reaction. You can develop an allergy to any of the four classes of wheat proteins — albumin, globulin, gliadin and gluten.
Sources of wheat proteins
Some sources of wheat proteins are obvious, such as bread, but all wheat proteins — and gluten in particular — can be found in many prepared foods and even in some cosmetics, bath products and play dough. Foods that may include wheat proteins include:
- Breads and bread crumbs
- Cakes and muffins
- Breakfast cereals
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Soy sauce
- Meat products, such as hot dogs or cold cuts
- Dairy products, such as ice cream
- Natural flavorings
- Gelatinized starch
- Modified food starch
- Vegetable gum
If you have wheat allergy, it's possible you might also be allergic to barley, oats and rye. Unless you're allergic to grains other than wheat, though, the recommended wheat-free diet is less restrictive than a gluten-free diet.
Wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis
Some people with wheat allergy develop symptoms only if they exercise within a few hours after eating wheat. Exercise-induced changes in your body either trigger an allergic reaction or worsen an immune system response to a wheat protein. This condition usually results in life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Certain factors may put you at greater risk of developing wheat allergy:
- Family history. You're at increased risk of allergy to wheat or other foods if your parents have food allergies or other allergies, such as hay fever.
- Age. Wheat allergy is most common in babies and toddlers, who have immature immune and digestive systems. Most children outgrow wheat allergy by 16, but adults can develop it, often as a cross-sensitivity to grass pollen.