Gluten sensitivities typically affect your digestive system, skin or sinuses, but in certain circumstances, a gluten allergy can cause ear congestion and a temporary reduction in hearing. Your heath care provider should evaluate ear problems that develop after consuming gluten to ensure the ear problems are related to a gluten allergy. Your doctor will provide you with a clinical diagnosis and treatment options.
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Gluten sensitivity, also called a gluten allergy, is an overreaction of the immune system to gluten. Gluten is one of the five proteins found in wheat that can cause the body to respond as if it were under attack, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Gluten is also present in other grains, such as rye, oats and barley and may be present in foods you don't suspect, such as ice cream, ketchup and salad dressing. Instead of your body recognizing the protein as safe, it reacts to it as if it were dangerous, attacking the proteins with immunoglobulin E antibodies and histamine.
During an allergic reaction to gluten, various chemicals are released that cause your blood vessels to dilate and irritate soft tissues. Histamine is the primary chemical in your body that causes inflammation and swelling to occur in soft tissues. As histamine levels increase in the soft tissues in your ears, swelling causes blockage in your inner ear that can lead to congestion. The congestion may also cause fluid to build up within the ear, causing temporary hearing loss.
You may develop muffled hearing, a crackling or popping sound in the ear, ear pain and pressure and a full sensation in the ear, according to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Other symptoms typically accompany ear congestion, such as nasal congestion, skin rashes, shortness of breath and digestive complications. If you develop ear congestion along with the inability to breathe, a puffy face, dizziness, lightheadedness, a drop in blood pressure or hives, call 911 because you may be experiencing a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
The most effective treatment for ear problems related to a gluten allergy is to avoid all foods that contain the protein. If you ingest gluten, talk with your doctor about using over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestant nasal sprays and pain relievers to help alleviate symptoms until they subside. If you develop a fever, body chills or muscle aches, you may have an ear infection that will require prescription antibiotics.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.