An intolerance to gluten

A food intolerance is difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them.

The most common symptoms people who have a food intolerance tend to experience are stomach pain, bloating, wind and/or diarrhoea, skin rashes and itching.

However, the symptoms people suffer vary from person to person and can be from relatively mild to severe, in some cases. The symptoms will also vary from baby to child to adult.

Possible things to look out for are:

Babies – chronic diarrhoea, abdominal distension, poor feeding, poor weight gain, muscle wasting.

Children – chronic diarrhoea or constipation, vomiting, poor weight gain or growth, poor feeding, irritability, muscle wasting.

Adults – chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, anaemia, weakness, fatigue.

For example, wheat allergy, a reaction to proteins found in wheat usually occurs within seconds or minutes of eating, while gluten intolerance symptoms can come on a few hours after eating the food.

A food intolerance:

  • doesn't involve your immune system – there is no allergic reaction and it is never life-threatening but can lead to complications which could be
  • causes symptoms that come on more slowly, often many hours after eating the problem food
  • only results in symptoms if you eat reasonable amounts of the food (unlike an allergy, where just traces can trigger a reaction)
  • can be caused by many different foods

A child with food intolerance

Never restrict your child's diet unless this has been advised by your doctor or dietician.

Your GP may refer you to a specialist if your child has digestive symptoms (such as tummy pain and diarrhoea) and your child:

  • isn't growing well
  • hasn't responded to any elimination diet that your healthcare professional recommended
  • has reacted suddenly or severely to a food
  • has a suspected food allergy

Gluten intolerance (coeliac disease)

Many people cut gluten from their diet thinking that they are intolerant to it because they have symptoms that come on after eating wheat but it's hard to know whether these symptoms are because of a genuine intolerance to gluten, an intolerance to something else in wheat, or nothing to do with wheat at all.

Wheat intolerance/ coeliac diseaseGluten intolerance, also known as coeliac disease or celiac disease, is the result of the immune system's response to the ingestion of gluten and is a life-long inflammatory disease of the upper small intestine.

Coeliac disease is now a common disease and its causes are still unknown.

It is thought to be associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors and will often run in families.

It is also more common in women than men and it is recommended that children are breastfed and that the introduction of foods containing gluten are delayed until after four months, and introduced slowly over a period of time, to prevent children from developing coeliac disease.

Diagnosis and treatment

Coeliac disease can often be mistaken as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or wheat intolerance and therefore not properly diagnosed. Without treatment, coeliac disease can cause a range of potential long-term complications including osteoporosis, growth defects and infertility.

This means it is important for you to talk to your GP if you suspect you may have gluten intolerance. They may refer you to a specialist if they're not sure what's causing your symptoms and further tests are needed.

Confirmation of coeliac disease is generally done by a blood test followed by a gut biopsy to confirm the condition.

If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, there is no cure, but you will need to switch to a gluten-free diet. There are now many gluten free alternatives available from supermarkets, health food shops and online. You should, within weeks, find an improvement in your symptoms. It may, however, take up to two years for your digestive system to heal completely.

It is recommended that children are breastfed and that the introduction of foods containing gluten are delayed until after four months, and introduced slowly over a period of time, to prevent children from developing coeliac disease.

Gluten is a protein that can be found in wheat, rye and barley and, therefore, foods that can trigger a gluten intolerance include:

  • Pasta
  • Cakes
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bread
  • Biscuits
  • Pies

It is also important to check food packaging labels since gluten can be found in several additives including modified food starch and malt flavouring.

It is therefore important for people to talk to their GP if they suspect they may have a gluten intolerance.

When it isn’t gluten intolerance

Some people have gut symptoms when eating foods with ingredients containing gluten, such as wheat, barley and rye, even if they don’t have coeliac disease. This is sometimes called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, but it is not clear how the immune system might be involved.

Other people who have a gluten intolerance will sometimes have a very itchy skin rash with blisters. This is not a symptom of coeliac disease but is a condition associated with exposure to gluten in the diet and is known as dermatitis herpetiformis.

The rash, although appearing anywhere on the body, will usually be found on the elbows, knees and buttocks and if the blisters are scratched they can burst. Again, switching to a gluten-free diet will help the rash clear up.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP, who can help diagnose this condition and advise on any treatment.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 18 March 2018

Next review: 18 March 2021