All About Wheat Allergy

in Other Food Allergy
Wheat allergy may not be as prevalent in North America as other food allergies, but can be just as dangerous.

Are you feeling stuffy, runny, achy and sneezy, with a scratchy throat, stomachache and maybe even a skin rash? You may have an allergy to the most common grain in our diet, namely, wheat.

When you have wheat allergy, your immune system sees it as a dangerous foreign substance and takes action, fighting back with antibodies known as Immunoglobulin E, or IgE. This results in histamine and other chemicals being released into your bloodstream, an action that begins the allergic reaction, with symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening, from runny noses to drops in blood pressure and breathing difficulties.

Studies on the prevalence of wheat allergy worldwide suggest that almost 1% (an average of 0.61%) of North Americans have a wheat allergy. While it can develop in adults, it more commonly a childhood condition, which may be outgrown.

If you are diagnosed with a wheat allergy, you must eliminate wheat from your diet, period. And while wheat allergies occur most often in children, the good news is that many of them will outgrow it by the time they reach adulthood.

Wheat allergy symptoms 

Wheat allergy’s symptoms are many and varied. You could have a bloated stomach and diarrhea, or you could suffer from joint pain, nausea, skin rashes and that darned runny nose. You could have psoriasis, sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, mood swings, or your throat could feel swollen.

You may be tired or have a cough, heart palpitations, eczema and chest palpitations. You may suffer from just one of these symptoms, a few or all of the above. What you must do is to consult a doctor because some of these same symptoms could indicate other medical conditions, including celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which the body cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. But where you may outgrow your wheat allergy, celiac disease is permanent. Once you have it, it’s there for life and right now, the only cure is to eliminate all gluten from your diet. With a wheat allergy, your immune system reacts specifically to the wheat protein and you may eat products that contain the two other grains with no ill effect.

Cutting wheat from a diet

Eliminating wheat from a diet is not the easiest of tasks but the first step is to cut out regular breads and pastas, certain soups and sauces and many alcoholic beverages.

Like gluten, wheat can hide in any number of places, no matter how cost-effective and a good bulking agent, it can be found in ice cream and at least one brand of hot dog. Wheat’s in rice cakes, potato chips, play dough and deli meats as a filler.

But with studies showing that food allergies, including wheat allergy, are on the rise in North America and other developed countries, there is now a large and growing range of wheat (and gluten-) free products available on grocery store shelves. Learn to read packaging carefully and take those warnings that state “may contain wheat” very seriously.

Shop and learn to cook and bake with alternate grains. Amaranth is a great choice, as are quinoa, barley, rye, rice and tapioca. And when dining at a restaurant, be open about your wheat allergy and ask specific questions with follow-ups. For example, don’t just ask what is in a dish.

While reeling off the list of ingredients – think something like “freshly picked chanterelle mushrooms with a hint of sage and butter churned on site this afternoon, ladled gently over a marinated beef and polenta” – like they are soliloquy, a waiter may forget a component as prosaic as mere wheat.

Are there treatments?

Some allergists who specialize in desensitization treatment offer oral immunotherapy for wheat allergy. However, it hasn’t been studied nearly as much as OIT for peanut allergy. One clinical trial showed 30 percent of wheat allergy patients could be desensitized. While that’s a lower rate than with OIT for peanut or tree nut, researcher Dr. Hugh Sampson points out that: “wheat is widespread in the diet.” So for some families or individuals, trying wheat OIT may be worth it to guard against accidental exposures.

Not everyone will want to try such a therapy, but everyone with a wheat allergy needs to carry epinephrine. The epinephrine auto-injector is the first-line emergency drug for a severe allergic reaction. Epinephrine opens the airways and regulates the blood pressure.

Antihistamines are considered useful as a secondary drug. But leading allergists’ organizations stress that it’s the epinephrine auto-injector that should be used in a serious reaction related to a food allergen. Epinephrine, used promptly, can stop an anaphylactic reaction, but antihistamines cannot.