Wheat Allergy vs. Celiac Disease

Apr 14, 2022

Wheat Allergy vs. Celiac Disease

5 minute read

For many of us, there’s really little better tasting than loading up on carbs from bread, chips, cereal, and cookies.

But for others, these same treats can result in a potentially life-threatening reaction.

Some people can have an allergic reaction to these types of foods. And while others might have similar symptoms after eating wheat products, it’s for a completely different reason called celiac disease.

While both allergies and celiac disease can prevent people from enjoying food products containing wheat, key differences between the two are important to note.

Let’s take a look at the major differences between wheat allergy and celiac disease.

What Is a Wheat Allergy?

A wheat allergy is a type of food allergy that occurs when the body mistakenly identifies the protein found in wheat to be harmful. The proteins in question are called gliadins, a type of prolamin.

If you have a wheat allergy and consume something containing wheat, your immune system responds by releasing a flood of chemicals to speed up the removal of these harmful proteins from your body and make sure your body navigates the pathogen “safely.”

This is what leads to symptoms like swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat, hives, a red or itchy rash, difficulty breathing, diarrhea or abdominal cramping, vomiting, or nausea.

Wheat is among the eight most common types of food allergies in the U.S., accompanied by milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, and soybeans.

Foods that contain wheat are culprits, including breads and pastas.

However, non-food items containing wheat can also cause a reaction, such as cosmetics or bath products.

What Are the Symptoms of Wheat Allergies?

The symptoms of wheat allergies can range from mild to severe, and they differ from person to person. In general, the symptoms look like this:

  • Hives or skin rash
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Asthma

In rare cases, a wheat allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. And, there is no way to predict if a person will have a mild or severe reaction to a food that they are allergic to. Reactions can vary every time someone is exposed to the food; therefore it’s important to always carry a medication called epinephrine wherever you go if you have a true food allergy.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects how an individual digests gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their body kicks off an immune response that affects the small intestine. This leads to major damage of the villi, which are small fingerlike projections on the walls of the small intestine that promote nutrient absorption. When these parts become damaged, it affects how the body receives necessary nutrients.

Celiac disease is also a serious disorder that requires affected individuals to avoid gluten entirely.

What Are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

The symptoms of celiac disease are related to the digestive tract, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach bloating or cramping
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pains
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting

Additionally, there are symptoms associated with malnutrition due to the damage caused by celiac disease, which include:

  • Bone and joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Itchy skin
  • Acid reflux
  • Stomach or mouth ulcers
  • Seizures

What Are the Major Differences Between Wheat Allergies and Celiac Disease?

While wheat allergies and celiac disease are similar in some respects, knowing the differences is important so you can get the right course of treatment.

Symptoms

Both wheat allergies and celiac disease can lead to stomach pain and cramping. But in general, the symptoms of a wheat allergy are related to an immune response, whereas the symptoms of celiac disease are related to the digestive tract.

For instance, sneezing, hives, or difficulty breathing are common with wheat allergies but not with celiac disease.

Additionally, wheat allergies cannot cause permanent damages to your intestines in the same way that celiac disease may. With that said, a wheat allergy may cause anaphylaxis, which is not possible in the case of celiac disease.

Causes

Wheat allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to proteins in wheat known as gliadins.

On the other hand, celiac disease is caused by an inability of the body to absorb a protein called gluten, which damages the lining of the intestines.

One similarity that these two share is that both wheat allergies and celiac disease are inherited, meaning that if your family has one of these conditions, you are more likely to develop it as well.

That said, some people can outgrow wheat allergies, whereas it is not possible to outgrow celiac disease.

Diagnosis

To diagnose a food allergy, you need an allergy test. A common form of allergy testing for food allergies involves a blood sample being sent to a lab. Your blood is examined for the volume of IgE antibodies, which react when exposed to certain proteins such as those found in wheat. An allergist can also do a test called a skin prick test in the office setting, which looks for a histamine reaction on your skin when you’re exposed to proteins from wheat.

You may need to get a blood test called a serology test for celiac disease. This looks for antibodies in your blood that might indicate an immune reaction to gluten.

How Can I Treat Wheat Allergies and Celiac Disease?

Now that you know the differences between these two conditions, it’s probably not much of a surprise that you also need different courses of treatment for each.

Treating Wheat Allergies

The only way to truly treat a wheat allergy is by avoiding foods and products containing wheat. You will also need to carry an epinephrine device with you at all times in case of accidental ingestion and/or symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Some allergies can be treated with allergy immunotherapy. This involves gradually exposing your immune system to the suspect allergen over time until your immune system gains a tolerance.

Allergy immunotherapy can be effective for some allergies, but not all.

Unfortunately, the science behind immunotherapy for wheat allergy isn’t there yet. While researchers are working on approaches to improving wheat tolerance, Cleared’s dermatologists don’t recommend this approach just yet.

Currently, Cleared offers allergy immunotherapy for dust mites, ragweed pollen, and grass pollen.

But one of the best ways to prevent wheat allergies is by just avoiding wheat in general. Since it is one of the eight most common food allergens, it must be listed on food labels if a given product contains wheat or was made in a facility that uses wheat.

Treating Celiac Disease

There is no cure for celiac disease, so treatment is essentially to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet to manage symptoms.

This involves avoiding wheat and other items containing gluten like malt, graham flour, and barley.

The good news is that there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives available for foods that are notoriously high in gluten. For example, you can now find gluten-free pretzels, bread, cookies, and other delicious foods at most supermarkets.

In Conclusion

While wheat allergies and celiac disease are caused by consuming items containing wheat and have similar symptoms, there are some major differences to be aware of.

The symptoms of celiac disease are confined to digestive problems, whereas wheat allergies present as respiratory symptoms or skin rashes. Additionally, the protein that causes wheat allergies is called gliadin, whereas the protein that causes celiac disease is called gluten.

While you should avoid eating wheat in both circumstances, it’s possible to outgrow wheat allergies, whereas it is not possible to outgrow celiac disease.

Not sure what’s causing your reactions? Your online allergist is in and ready to help you understand your body even better than before. Start your free allergy consultation to get a personalized treatment plan that includes free shipping on medications, plus continued access to your clinician and ongoing care––all done from home.

Sources

Wheat | ACAAI Public Website

Food Allergies | FDA.

Anaphylaxis - Symptoms and causes | The Mayo Clinic.

Blood Test: Immunoglobulin E (IgE) (for Parents) | Nemours KidsHealth.

Celiac disease - Diagnosis and treatment | The Mayo Clinic.


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