How Serious Are Wheat Allergies?

of children with a wheat allergy outgrow it by age 12.

Allergies to food, including wheat, are the most common causes of a potentially life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. A wheat allergy is most common in children, but about two-thirds of kids outgrow it at a young age. Since wheat is included on the list of the eight most allergenic foods, it’s important to know how to avoid exposure to wheat products and be able to spot the symptoms of an allergic reaction if a wheat product is ingested.

A wheat allergy is a type of immune response triggered by ingesting products containing wheat. For some, this can also be triggered by inhaling wheat flour. You can develop an allergy to any four of the classes of wheat proteins which includes albumin, globulin, gliadin, and gluten.

The immune system normally reacts to an allergen by protecting us from any kind of a negative response, however, the immune response of an individual with a food allergy is oversensitive. When faced with an allergen, the system reacts by releasing substances that cause allergy symptoms.

Wheat Allergy Symptoms

Even the smallest amount of wheat can cause an allergic reaction, so it’s important to know how to avoid exposure to wheat products and be able to spot the symptoms of an allergic reaction if wheat is ingested. People with a wheat allergy may experience an allergic reaction to products containing wheat anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after consuming the allergen.

Most Common Symptoms of Wheat Allergies

  • Hives or skin rash
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Eye irritation (itchy, watery eyes)
  • Irritation of the mouth and throat
  • Headaches
  • Asthma or difficult breathing

In severe cases, wheat allergies can also result in anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe, and life-threatening allergic reaction that can involve several areas of the body. If you have a wheat allergy, it is recommended to keep an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times. An epinephrine injection is the only treatment for anaphylaxis.

Avoiding Exposure to Wheat Products

Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction. So, in order to prevent an allergic reaction to wheat, you must avoid wheat and wheat products in all forms, including eating and inhaling wheat flour. This can be challenging since wheat is the most common grain product in the United States. The following list contains some of the more common food items you will find wheat in:

  • Bread, pastas, cakes, cookies, and muffins
  • Beer
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Couscous
  • Cracker meal
  • Farina, semolina and spelt
  • Flour
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Sprouted wheat
  • Wheat (bran, durum, germ, gluten, malt, sprouts, starch), wheat bran hydrolysate, wheat germ oil, wheat protein isolate
  • Batter-fried foods
  • Snack foods such as potato chips, rice cakes, and crackers
  • Salad dressings, soups, ketchup, soy sauce, and marinara sauce
  • Processed meats and imitation crab meat
  • Ice cream and candy
  • Vegetable gum

Barley, oats, and rye also contain some of the proteins in wheat, so it’s a good idea to check for allergies to those grains as well.

Special Considerations

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance are often used interchangeably with wheat allergy, but they are not the same thing. It’s important to note that gluten sensitivity indicates an intolerance of gluten, but those with a wheat allergy can tolerate gluten, as long as it doesn’t come from any wheat products. Similarly, wheat allergy is often confused with celiac disease, but they are quite different conditions. A wheat allergy will cause a quick immune response to consuming wheat. Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder triggered by consumption of gluten, which is one of the proteins found in wheat.

People with a wheat allergy must also be aware of cross-contact, which can happen when a food is exposed to wheat during processing or handling. For example, when visiting a bakery, make sure and ask if the item has wheat in it and if it was prepared on the same surface as products containing wheat. Even if the bakery item you purchase is advertised as “wheat free,” it can still be contaminated with wheat products if prepared on the same surface or with the same equipment as wheat.

In some rare cases, exercising within a few hours of consuming wheat can trigger an allergic reaction or worsen an immune system response to a wheat protein. This condition usually results in anaphylaxis.

Regulations Related to Wheat Allergies

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is primarily responsible for enforcing the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which requires that food labels clearly identify the food source names of any ingredients that are one of the major food allergens (including wheat) or contain any protein derived from a major food allergen.

The law further explains that the name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear in parentheses following the name of the ingredient or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement.

Unfortunately, the FALCPA’s labeling requirement does not apply to products that may be contaminated due to cross-contact. The FDA does not regulate statements such as: “may contain wheat,” or “manufactured on shared equipment with wheat” or “packaged in a plant that also processes wheat,” so there is no guarantee that products labeled as such are safe.