Wheat allergy is quite rare, affecting around 0.2% of the population. The condition can be difficult to live with because wheat makes up a large proportion of the modern diet. The allergy is more common in early childhood, although most children with a wheat allergy will have outgrown it before they reach adolescence. In some individuals the condition only appears in adulthood. True wheat allergy should not be confused with celiac disease, a similar, slightly more common condition, where consumption of gluten damages the small intestine. Nor should it be confused with the increasingly common condition of wheat intolerance, where a person experiences difficulty digesting wheat, but does not experience an allergic reaction. With true wheat allergy, the proteins found in wheat provoke an allergic reaction. Those with a family history of allergies such as eczema or asthma are at greater risk of developing the condition.
Symptoms of Wheat Allergy
Symptoms will usually appear within a few minutes or hours after eating something containing wheat. They can include:
- Irritation, itching or swelling of the mouth, throat or eyes
- Hives or an itchy rash
- A blocked nose
- A headache
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Children suffering from eczema will sometimes experience a delayed reaction, experiencing worsening of their condition after 24-48 hours
- In extreme cases, persons with wheat allergy may experience anaphylaxis, a rare, life-threatening condition which requires immediate medical attention. This can sometimes happen if the individual exercises within 12 hours of consuming a wheat product. If you have been diagnosed as being at risk of anaphylaxis your doctor will have prescribed Epinephrine (Adrenaline) in an auto-injector for self-administration the moment the symptoms of anaphylaxis appear. You should carry this with you at all times. Where children have been prescribed Epinephrine it is important that all teachers and care-givers know how and when to use it. Where anaphylaxis is suspected, an ambulance should be called and the person must be given immediate emergency medical care.
Some of those who work in the baking industry have been found to suffer from “baker’s allergy” where they suffer an allergic reaction after breathing in wheat flour.
If you believe that you or your child may be suffering from a wheat allergy, if one of more of the above symptoms are present after eating a wheat product, you should visit your doctor who may refer you to an allergy specialist for further investigation.
An allergist will most likely ask you about your symptoms and your medical history, for example whether or not anyone in your family has allergies as this will mean that you are more likely to suffer from one. They may ask you to keep a food diary or to eliminate some foods from your diet to observe the results.
The allergy can be diagnosed using either a skin-prick test or a blood test. A skin-prick test involves exposing a small area of your skin to the proteins found in wheat and waiting to see if a reddish lump appears which would indicate an allergy. A blood test will check for antibodies that could be causing a wheat allergy. In addition the allergist may decide to do an oral food challenge, where, under close medical supervision, with emergency medication at hand, you will be given small amounts of wheat products to eat to observe the reaction.
Management of Wheat Allergy
The only way to manage a wheat allergy is to exclude wheat products from the diet. All breads should be avoided unless stated to be wheat free. Other wheat products include cakes, muffins, biscuits, cookies, pitta, crumpets, tortillas, some tacos, pancakes, rusks, pasta, pizza, pasties, some processed meats and sausages, semolina, couscous, some cereals, some fish spreads and meat spreads, soups, gravies, hoisin sauce, ready-meals, and any food coated in breadcrumbs. Many powdered drinks, such as those for making hot chocolate may contain wheat, as can a surprising number of alcoholic drinks, including many beers, ales, lagers, whisky and many wines and spirits. Even communion hosts have been known to trigger an allergic reaction is some sufferers.
Always read labels carefully. Look out for hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, starch, modified starch, natural flavorings and vegetable starch.
Wheat can also be found in some non-food products such as cosmetics and play-doh. If in doubt, contact the manufacturer.
A significant number of those with wheat allergy will also be allergic to the proteins found in other grains such as barley or rye, although spelt is often tolerated. Speak to your doctor or allergy specialist to find out whether these should also be excluded.
Luckily for those with wheat allergy, most supermarkets now stock many products such as bread and pasta, cookies, cereal bars and even Christmas cakes, which are guaranteed to be wheat free. Experiment with these. You may find the texture and taste of some brands preferable to others. You should still carefully read the labels, particularly if you have been diagnosed as being allergic to rye or other grains in addition to wheat.
Alternatives to wheat include rice, rice flour, potato, corn and buckwheat. Substitute arrowroot or conflour when thickening sauces. Use beans, lentils or chickpeas to add bulk to soups and casseroles.
Celiac (coeliac) disease is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system responds to proteins found in gluten as if it is attacking the body. Symptoms include bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, weight loss and malnutrition. It is estimated that at least 1% of the population are affected, so is more common than wheat allergy. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley. Those diagnosed with the condition must avoid gluten for life. If you suspect that you may have this condition, consult your doctor who will be able to arrange blood tests.
Whilst genuine wheat allergy is quite rare, wheat intolerance, i.e. difficulty digesting wheat is becoming more common. Symptoms are not life threatening and include bloating, stomach pain and upset stomach after consuming wheat products. Symptoms usually develop quite slowly, often several hours after eating the wheat product. If you suspect that you may be sensitive or intolerant to wheat, consult your doctor or other allergy specialist. They may ask you to keep a food diary and to try avoiding wheat for a defined period to see if symptoms improve. There is no specific test for wheat intolerance.