Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat, one of the top eight food allergens in the United States. Allergic reactions can result from eating wheat, but also, in some cases, by inhaling wheat flour. Wheat can be found in many foods, including some you might not suspect, such as beer, soy sauce and ketchup.
Avoiding wheat is the primary treatment for wheat allergy. 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. A wheat allergy generates an allergy-causing antibody to proteins found in wheat. In people with celiac disease, a particular protein in wheat — gluten — causes an abnormal immune system reaction.
A child or adult with wheat allergy is likely to develop 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
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Difficulty breathing
- Cramps, nausea or vomiting
Most young children with wheat allergy outgrow it by ages 3 to 5.
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
- Fast heartbeat
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
- Some condiments, such as ketchup
- Meat products, such as hot dogs or cold cuts
- Dairy products, such as ice cream
- Natural flavorings
- Gelatinized starch
- Modified food starch
- Vegetable gum
- Jelly beans
- Hard candies
If you have a wheat allergy, you might also be allergic to barley, oats and rye — but the chance is slim. If you're not allergic to grains other than wheat, a wheat-free diet is less restrictive than a gluten-free diet.
Wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis
Some people with a 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 a 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, but adults can develop it, often as a cross-sensitivity to grass pollen.