According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, only eight foods are responsible for 90 percent of food allergies and one of those foods is wheat. Wheat is a common ingredient in dozens of foods such as breads, pastas, cakes, crackers, cereal and even soy sauce and ketchup. If you think you might suffer from a wheat allergy, read this handy guide to find out how it is diagnosed, what foods to avoid and how to handle allergic reactions in the future.
An allergic reaction to wheat, or any food, is caused by the immune system, which detects wheat as being a harmful substance. When you ingest a food that contains wheat, the immune system produces immunoglobulin E, an antibody that will attack the wheat, thereby causing an allergic reaction.
The immune system will start to produce immunoglobulin E as soon as it detects any of these proteins found in wheat:
Albumin and globulin cause the majority of allergic reactions, which can be caused through direct contact with foods that contain wheat or through inhalation of wheat flour.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction to wheat range from mild to severe and are experienced a few minutes up to a few hours after eating products that contain wheat. These symptoms include:
- Itching or swelling of the skin, mouth or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Nasal congestion
- Diarrhea or cramps
- Nausea or vomiting
- Watery eyes
Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction that can occur and can be life-threatening. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightening of the chest
- Difficulty swallowing
- Passing out or feeling light-headed
- Pale or blue skin color
- Rapid heart rate
Anaphylaxis is a serious medical condition and requires a trip to the emergency room as well as a shot of epinephrine.
Anaphylaxis can also be caused by exercising after eating wheat products. This is called wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can also be induced after taking an aspirin or diclofenac after eating wheat products. Both the medication and the exercise trigger biological mechanisms that cause an allergic reaction.
Sometimes a wheat allergy can be mistaken for celiac disease, which is a specific intolerance for the wheat protein gluten. People with this disease are considered to be gluten sensitive and may not be able to properly absorb nutrients from food.
It is possible to have both a wheat allergy and celiac disease. It’s also possible that what you suspect to be a food allergy isn’t really an allergy at all, but intolerance. The difference is that food intolerance is not an immune system response and small amounts of the food may be tolerated.
To find out whether or not you are allergic to wheat, you’ll need to seek a doctor’s diagnosis. There are three ways to determine whether you have an allergy to wheat:
- Blood test: This will measure the amount of immunoglobulin E that is in your bloodstream, but this method is not always accurate.
- Skin test: Your back or forearm will be pricked with needles containing small amounts of wheat. If a reaction occurs, you are allergic to wheat.
- Elimination diet: Your doctor may ask you to eliminate wheat and wheat products along with a few other foods to ensure that the allergy you have is to wheat.
Your doctor may also ask you to keep a food diary or undergo hospital supervision for a few days while determining the source of your symptoms.
Allergic reactions are generally treated one of two ways: with antihistamines or with epinephrine. For mild reactions, taking an antihistamine at the first sign of a reaction will reduce your symptoms and relieve pain or discomfort. For anaphylaxis, an epinephrine shot will need to be administered through an auto-injector or by a medical professional. If you do have a wheat allergy, it’s important to keep both treatments on hand in case of an emergency.
If you do suffer from a wheat allergy, you’ll have to make certain lifestyle changes. For starters, you’ll have to avoid foods that contain wheat bran, wheat germ, wheat malt, wheat starch and gluten. Some of the foods you’ll need to avoid are:
- Hard candies
- Jelly beans and licorice
You’ll also need to avoid ingredients such as:
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Gelatinized starch
- Vegetable gum
- Natural flavorings
The key to avoiding these ingredients is to check the ingredient labels on all food packaging. If you feel unsure about an ingredient, don’t eat the food. It’s better to not take a chance. Here are some other tips to follow:
- Look for gluten-free foods. Many grocery stores now carry a variety of products that don’t contain gluten.
- Ask the waiter about wheat-free options. Don’t be afraid to ask restaurant servers questions about foods that are gluten-free and if gluten-free foods are prepared on the same surfaces as foods that contain wheat.
- Consult with your child’s school cafeteria. If your child is allergic to wheat, make sure the teachers and staff are well-informed and prepared in case of an emergency.
You may also want to consider wearing a medical alert bracelet if you’re prone to anaphylaxis. That way, if you have an allergic reaction in public, someone will be able to get you the help that you need. Although making some of these changes may seem like an inconvenience, they’ll keep you healthy in the long-run and may end up saving your life.