Gluten Allergy: Symptoms & Signs

“Gluten-free” has become a popular food and diet fad as of late, and never before have there been more options for those who can’t tolerate gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—as well as for those who prefer a gluten-free diet. When it comes to identifying a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy in your child, there are some key symptoms and signs to look for, and it’s also important to understand how celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder, is different. 

Gluten intolerance, wheat allergy, and celiac disease: what’s the difference?

There are many terms used to describe the different ways a body may respond to gluten. Some people are allergic to wheat, but that is not the same as a gluten allergy. In fact, there really is no such thing as a “gluten allergy,” and it is more accurate to refer to it as a “gluten intolerance” or “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Celiac disease, on the other hand, is a digestive condition that can be serious if not properly diagnosed or treated. 

What to do if you think your child has a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy?

If you suspect your child may have a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy, the first step is to rule out celiac disease. Although many of the symptoms and signs of celiac disease overlap with those of a gluten intolerance and wheat allergy, since celiac disease involves the immune system while an intolerance to gluten and allergy to wheat do not, a child that is gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat does not run the risk of intestinal damage, should they eat gluten/wheat.

Celiac disease: what causes it, what are the symptoms, and how is it diagnosed?   

When a person with celiac disease ingests gluten, an immune response is triggered in the small intestine, and over time, this reaction damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents it from absorbing some nutrients (a process known as malabsorption).

Symptoms of celiac disease include severe diarrhea after eating products that contain gluten, rash, severe weight loss or failure to properly gain weight, and abdominal pain. In young children, poor weight gain may not be accompanied by pain, though other symptoms may also be present. 

Because gluten is a protein that causes an immune response in those with celiac disease, a simple blood test can identify the presence of anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies and lead to a diagnosis. Higher levels of anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies help your child’s doctor determine if they have celiac disease, and a biopsy of the intestine can confirm the diagnosis.

After discussing your child’s symptoms with their pediatrician, they may order one or more of a series of blood tests to measure your child’s response to gluten and determine whether celiac disease is causing their issues.

What are the symptoms of a gluten intolerance and wheat allergy?

A child with an intolerance to gluten or wheat allergy may experience many of the same symptoms as someone with celiac disease, making it difficult to distinguish between them without a blood test. The main difference, however, is that a person with a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy will likely experience symptoms that are less gastrointestinal in nature, and symptoms appear minutes to days after eating food that contains gluten. Some of the most common symptoms of a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy in kids include:

  • The most common symptom associated with a gluten intolerance is “brain fog.” Kids with brain fog often complain of feeling tired or groggy, and they may be especially forgetful, confused, and have trouble focusing or completing tasks.
  • While it’s normal for your child to get a headache here and there, chronic headaches and migraines are not common in children and should be addressed by a medical professional. If your child is experiencing headaches or migraines regularly, speak to their pediatrician, as it may be a sign of a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy.
  • Though many teens suffer from acne at some point, it along with a flushed complexion, hives, and rashes can be caused by a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy in children. Itchy elbows, knees, buttocks, and back of the neck have specifically been associated with a gluten intolerance, so pay attention to where your child complains of discomfort.
  • Your child might experience nasal congestion, swelling, and itching or irritation of the mouth or throat if they have a wheat allergy. Some children with a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy have difficulty breathing after ingesting gluten, and in extreme cases, a wheat allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. If someone shows signs of anaphylaxis, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Similar to chronic headaches and migraines, chronic joint and muscle pain or numbness—that go beyond the occasional growing pain—are common signs of a gluten intolerance. Kids who are gluten intolerant often describe a tingling sensation in their fingers, arms, or legs, so if your child is reporting this, it’s best to bring it to the attention of their doctor. 
  • Abdominal pain (including cramps and nausea/vomiting), diarrhea, gas, or constipation as well as a swollen stomach or bloating can all be signs of an intolerance to gluten or wheat allergy.

How to determine if your child is gluten intolerant or has a wheat allergy?

Once a blood test has confirmed that your child does not have celiac disease, the best way to determine a food sensitivity—and specifically, a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy—is to eliminate gluten from their diet and monitor how this affects their symptoms. Of course, this should always be done under the supervision of your child’s doctor, and you’ll want to seek their medical advice in order to reach the right diagnosis.  

What to do if your child is gluten intolerant or has a wheat allergy?

For parents of children with celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or a wheat allergy, “gluten free” is more than a trend or a method for weight loss. And while having options is always convenient, the Tolerance Induction Program (TIP™) at Southern California Food Allergy Institute can help gluten-intolerant children as well as those with a wheat allergy go beyond avoidance and reach true food freedom.

By using trillions of data points to create customized treatment plans for each child, TIP™ maps out a child’s allergies to form an individualized program that builds tolerance to the unique proteins a child is allergic to, all before introducing their most anaphylactic allergen. This ensures patient safety, and eventually, alters their immune system to not react to their allergens.

Here at the Southern California Food Allergy Institute, we understand that navigating a potential food allergy or sensitivity in your child can be overwhelming and stressful. We are here to provide the safest and most comprehensive care for your child, and there are a number of ways to reach us. For additional information about the Tolerance Induction Program (TIP™) and food allergies, be sure to visit our blog and subscribe to our newsletter to get updates and news straight to your inbox.