Gluten Allergy, Gluten Intolerance, Celiac Disease: The Differences

Do crackers give you hives? Does your stomach cramp from a slice of pizza? It could be the result of either an allergic reaction or intolerance to gluten. Unfortunately, it's often frustrating.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein that's contained in a variety of wheat, rye, and barley products. These include many breads, cakes, cookies, pastas, and cereals. Pizza, fried foods, soups, and sauces often contain gluten.

If you experience symptoms after eating these types of foods, it could be caused by any of the following scenarios:

  • An intolerance to gluten
  • An autoimmune condition called celiac disease that's triggered by gluten
  • An allergic reaction to gluten

The symptoms of these problems can appear similar, but how and why they occur, and the consequences they cause, are quite different.

Gluten Intolerance

If you suffer from a gluten intolerance, your body will have trouble digesting foods that contain gluten and this can cause a range of abdominal discomforts, including gas, pain, and diarrhea. While these symptoms can be incapacitating, they usually resolve on their own and won't cause permanent damage.

Celiac Disease

An autoimmune condition, celiac disease often comes with similar stomach ailments, but in this case, the presence of gluten triggers the immune system to attack the tissue in the small intestine. This process can damage the intestinal track and lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, since it hampers the body's ability to absorb food properly.

Celiac disease can also activate a type of blood cell that increases the risk of experiencing other autoimmune disorders.

Some people with an intolerance to gluten may end up developing celiac disease in the future, according to a study published in GUT: An International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in April 2011. This means that if you have a family history of celiac disease or experience severe intolerance symptoms, you'll need to stay on top of the situation.

Gluten Allergy

An allergy to gluten or wheat also involves the immune system. With a gluten allergy, the immune system views the gluten as a dangerous substance and launches an attack against it. This sets off a chain reaction that can lead to stomach distress, as well as a rash, wheezing, and swelling of the face, lips, and tongue. In severe cases, a life-threatening reaction can even occur. People with a serious wheat or gluten allergy should carry an EpiPen® just in case they inadvertently become exposed to gluten.

Diagnosing the Problem

If you're not sure what's causing your symptoms, see your doctor for diagnostic testing. Skin and blood tests can often be used to help identify a food allergy, while an antibody test can help diagnose celiac disease. Your doctor may ask you to keep track of what you eat and when the symptoms occur.

You can usually handle small doses of gluten with food intolerance. But consuming larger portions, or eating several foods containing gluten in a row, will be likely to set off symptoms. On the other hand, for people with food allergies, even the tiniest bit of gluten can be enough to trigger a serious response. Your reaction may start off mild, but subsequent exposure to gluten will often cause increasingly severe symptoms.

Playing It Safe

In all three cases, the best way to prevent the problem is to remove foods containing gluten from your diet. Since gluten is a common ingredient in many recipes, it's important to read labels and become familiar with items that are safe to eat.

Some people with gluten intolerances may be able to use digestive aids to help them tolerate some forms of gluten, but people with celiac disease and food allergies will need to permanently avoid all gluten. Although this can be challenging, the good news is that many supermarkets and health food stores today offer a wide array of gluten-free alternatives, making it possible to eat a balanced diet and still prevent gluten-related symptoms.




"Food Allergy vs. Intolerance. What's the Difference?" The Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 June 2011. Web. 7 Jan. 2012.

"Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease: What Do We Know?" Celiac Central. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, 17 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Jan. 2012.

Nordqvist, Christian. "What is Gluten Intolerance? What is Celiac Disease?" Medical News Today. Medical News Today, 20 Feb. 2006. Web. 7 Jan. 2012.

Not, Tarcisio et al. "Cryptic Genetic Gluten Intolerance Revealed by Intestinal Antitransglutaminase Antibodies and Response to Gluten-free Diet." Gut: An International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology Online, 6 April 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.

"What is Celiac Disease?" American Celiac Disease Alliance (ACDA)., 13 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Jan. 2012.