What Is Gluten Allergy?
Gluten allergy is a catchall term that can be used to describe a number of different disorders related to how the body processes certain grain proteins. Because these health conditions can have similar or overlapping symptoms, testing is the only way to know for certain which type of adverse response is occurring.
This is a food allergy that may occur as a response to proteins in wheat. It may or may not be a reaction to the glutens in this grain, since there are other proteins in wheat that might trigger allergic responses as well. This allergy tends to trigger a response within minutes to hours after exposure. Wheat gluten allergy symptoms may include:
- Itching rash or hives (urticaria)
- Red, watery, or itchy eyes
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Nasal congestion
In rare cases, a severe allergic response can cause anaphylaxis—swelling in the airway that cuts off breathing. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
A true allergic response causes the immune system to overreact to protect the body from perceived threats (such as foreign proteins). In contrast, celiac disease causes the immune system to attack the body’s own tissue. For this reason, it is classified as an autoimmune disorder rather than an allergy. However, many of the symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain are similar to those in people with a wheat allergy. Celiac disease can also cause hundreds of other symptoms including:
- Constipation, oily stool or unusually pale or foul-smelling bowel movements
- Acid reflux, heartburn, vomiting
- Anxiety, irritability, or depression
- Fatigue or headaches
- Irregular or missed periods, infertility, recurrent miscarriage
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Tingling or numbness in the feet, hands, and legs
- Bone or joint pain, arthritis, and osteoporosis
It may also cause a severe skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis) that forms red, fluid-filled blisters on the skin. Because celiac disease damages the lining of the intestines, it can also result in serious malnutrition over time.
The onset of symptoms usually occurs after a longer interval, from half an hour to a full day after exposure. Symptoms may last for days, weeks, or even months. Allergy medications (antihistamines) do not improve these symptoms because the mechanism causing inflammation is not a histamine response.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
This condition is the hardest one to define because it does not meet the criteria for a typical food allergy or an autoimmune disorder. The precise cause of this food sensitivity is not known, but it appears to be a general immune system response. Individuals with non-celiac gluten intolerance may have gastrointestinal symptoms including:
Other gluten allergy symptoms include fatigue, headaches, asthma, eczema, and foggy thinking. Exposure to gluten causes a reaction after a few hours. This condition is never life-threatening like wheat allergies and does not damage the intestinal lining like celiac disease. There is no test for NCGS. It can only be diagnosed by ruling out other possibilities.
For all forms of gluten allergy, the best way to manage the disorder is by avoiding the foods that cause an adverse reaction.