Itching rash or tingling toes: Is gluten the cause?

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

I love bread, pasta, and many other foods made with wheat. Luckily, I can eat them all without having to worry about gluten. But I have to admit that the growing public awareness of gluten and the problems it can cause has got me thinking.

Gluten is an umbrella term for the proteins gliadin (in wheat), secalin (in rye), and hordein (in barley). Bakers know it as the substance that makes dough resilient and stretchy. In some people, gluten triggers an immune reaction and causes inflammation of the lining of the small intestine, which can eventually interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food. This is called celiac disease. Some of the more common symptoms of celiac disease are:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Foul-smelling stools
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Skin rash

Some people have no apparent symptoms or their symptoms are so subtle that they never mention them to their doctor. As a result, celiac disease may be misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed for years.

A growing number of people who don’t have celiac disease suffer many of its symptoms. They are classified as “gluten sensitive” or “gluten intolerant.” You can read more about gluten sensitivity in the free online excerpt of “Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity,” a new Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publishing.

My dad developed the tingling, painful condition known as peripheral neuropathy late in his life. The cause was never clearly identified. While researching the topic of gluten sensitivity for “Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity,” I read a research paper in the journal Neurology that said peripheral neuropathy can be a symptom of gluten sensitivity. It made me wonder if my father’s condition was linked to an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. Digging further into the medical literature, I saw that a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms can be triggered by exposure to gluten and that a gluten-free diet can sometimes be an effective remedy. In one study published in the Archives of Dermatology, dermatologists found that going gluten-free can help relieve the itchy, red skin blisters of dermatitis herpetiformis. Clearly, gluten-related symptoms this diverse are hard to pin down.

I will never know whether my Dad might have benefited from a gluten-free diet because he passed away a few years ago. But it’s good to know that at least some people are being helped by the growing awareness of the problems gluten can cause.

More complete information on food allergies and reactions, including information on diagnosing and treating gluten-related conditions, is available in the new Harvard Medical School report, “Food Allergy, Intolerance and Sensitivity.” You can read an excerpt or purchase the report at


  1. Corey Christofel

    This is an excellent article, thank you Kay. is a website that I work with that has more info on Recognizing the signs of celiac disease, along with much more content about how to live gluten freely!

  2. Anonymous

    It takes years to get diagnosed correctly.So many people are getting misdiagnosed or diagnosed with something they don’t have.Which can be very dangerous for the person, if there given medication or operated on for something they don’t have. Celiac is rare not everyone has it, celiac is so misunderstood.Celiac suffers are short stature,failure to thrive, delayed puberty (females are flat chested, if you or they haven’t developed breast by the time your or there 13 you or they are probarly suffering from celiac),dermatitis herpetiformis (sometimes could be mistaken for hives),joint pains,swelling,burning sensation,chest pain,back problems, loss of teeth.Celiac suffers can’t tolerate gluten at all there gluten intolerant.If your not very tiny and thin the size of a jockey.Your probarly not suffering from celiac.But you still could be gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance and suffering from something else, even thou you don’t suffer from celiac.

  3. Umi

    I’m 42 and I have peripheral neuropathy. I’m not diabetic and the doctors have not been able to figure out what’s causing it. I had a biopsy done for celiac but it came negative. Can it still be gluten?

    • Kay Cahill Allison
      Kay Cahill Allison

      The research paper in the Journal of Neurology (see original blog above ) suggested peripheral neuropathy as a possible symptom of gluten sensitivity which is different from celiac disease. So you could have symptoms of gluten sensitivity even if you don’t have celiac disease.

      I read a research paper in the journal Neurology that said peripheral neuropathy can be a symptom of gluten sensitivity. It made me wonder if my father’s condition was linked to an undiagnosed gluten

  4. Dee Ragin

    Thank you for this article. So many people are being misdiagnosed. Most people are not aware of the many problems this intolerance can cause. Especially when gone untreated. I suffer from gluten intolerance. Once I discovered the issue, my whole quality of life changed. No more allergies, no more pre-diabetes test results, and peri-menopausal symptoms disappeared. Thank God for a little information that made me take a look at what was causing all of my issues.

  5. lizzy shafir

    yes, people are becoming more aware of the problem of gluten intolerance, but there is an interesting point a naturapth mentioned to me.
    He said that the flour being used in most grain products is mostly rancid because grains begin to go rancid soon after the kernel is ground and this rancidity of our grain products may be causing allergic symptoms which might actually not be gluten intolerance if people would grind their grain freshly every day.
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  6. alex

    Wow, never knew that Gluten could be the cause of that! Sorry about your loss for your father. Great article.
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  7. Stacy Malinow

    Please support the petition for the Girl Scouts to sell a gluten free and allergen free cookie. [URL removed by moderator]

  8. Ben VanderVeen


    I was happy to come across your article, indeed gluten sensitivities can be very hard to track down and diagnose. I was ill with dermatitis herpetiformis for a number of years before getting proper diagnosement and treatment. Gluten was causing a skin reaction, and it didn’t occur to me that it was food related until I stumbled on some articles online. I was the one who requested the doctor do a biopsy that revealed my condition. The number of people who are under or mis-diagnosed in this country is very high for gluten allergies, Celiac disease, etc.

    Thanks again for your insight.


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