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Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that causes problems in your small intestine. You experience the problems when you eat gluten. Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye, and barley.
In people who have celiac disease, gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. This damages the small intestine. It can’t take in nutrients from the foods you eat. When this happens, your body doesn’t get the important nutrients it needs. This includes vitamins, calcium, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Your body can’t work well without these nutrients.
Symptoms of celiac disease
Celiac disease can cause a wide range of symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms change. Sometimes you have no symptoms at all. Symptoms of celiac disease may include:
In infants and young children
- Digestive symptoms. These include abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Feeling irritable, fretful, emotionally withdrawn, or excessively dependent.
- Failure to grow and gain weight.
- Damage to tooth enamel.
- Obesity or overweight.
- Digestive symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation.
- Delayed puberty.
- Slowed growth and short height.
- Hair loss.
- Digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation (less likely than children).
- General feeling of poor health, including fatigue and bone or joint pain.
- Irritability, anxiety, and depression.
- Missed menstrual periods in women.
- Osteoporosis (loss of calcium from the bones) and anemia.
Other common symptoms in people of any age with celiac disease include:
- Lactose intolerance — a problem digesting milk products.
- Dermatitis herpetiformis — an itchy, blistery skin problem.
- Canker sores in the mouth.
What causes celiac disease?
Doctors and researchers don’t know exactly what causes celiac disease. It is more common in people who:
- Have a family member with celiac disease. If 1 member of your family has it, about 1 out of 10 other family members likely has it.
- Have an autoimmune disease. This could include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune thyroid or liver disease, Addison’s disease, or Sjogren’s syndrome.
- Have a genetic disorder such as Down syndromeor Turner’s syndrome.
If you have celiac disease, you probably won’t know it right away. You may have this disease for a while without getting sick. Then something can trigger, or “turn on,” the disease. This could be severe stress, physical injury, infection, childbirth, or surgery.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease can be hard to diagnose. Its symptoms are similar to other digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome. But blood tests can help your doctor diagnose this disease. If your blood test indicates that you might have celiac disease, an intestinal biopsy is often done. This takes a small piece of tissue from your small intestine using a thin tube. Positive biopsy results will confirm that you have celiac disease. Diagnosis of dermatitis herpetiformis with a positive blood test will also confirm it.
Don’t stop eating gluten before you have a blood test. If you do, it can skew your results.
Can celiac disease be prevented or avoided?
There is no way to prevent or avoid getting celiac disease.
Celiac disease treatment
Celiac disease is serious. Fortunately you can control celiac disease by following a gluten-free diet. This means you remove gluten completely from your diet. By doing this, you can reverse the damage caused by celiac disease. You’ll feel better. But if you “cheat” on your diet, the damage will come back. Sometimes you may not feel sick right away, so you think it’s okay to eat gluten. But it’s not.
People who follow a gluten-free diet avoid all foods that contain:
- triticale products, including many breads, pastas, cereals and processed foods.
Foods that do not contain gluten and are safe to eat include:
Some oat products can be contaminated with wheat gluten. Some people choose to avoid oats because of this.
Gluten sometimes appears in foods or places you wouldn’t expect:
- It is used as a thickening agent in many gravies and sauces.
- It is sometimes used in medicines. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking a new medicine. This includes vitamins and supplements.
- It can be found in lip balm, lipstick, and other cosmetics.
Celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities have become more well-known. Gluten-free eating has become more mainstream. Many restaurants offer gluten-free options. Grocery stores usually have whole gluten-free sections. So plenty of gluten-free products can be found.
Living with celiac disease
Learning to be gluten-free may be difficult at first. It will take time for you and your family to learn how to avoid gluten. You’ll have to learn to read ingredient labels and identify the foods that contain gluten. You’ll have to be careful when you buy foods at the grocery store, or when you eat out. You’ll probably have to learn some new cooking recipes.
If you’re looking for help, there are many resources available. Many books and websites provide information, tips, and recipes for gluten-free living. Your local celiac disease support group is a good source of information and support. You may also find it helpful to meet with a registered dietician. A dietician can help you learn what foods to avoid, how to read food labels, and how to make healthy substitutions. Ask your doctor for help finding a certified registered dietician in your area.
Questions to ask your doctor
- My mother had celiac disease. Am I at risk?
- I have celiac disease. Are my children at risk of having it too?
- What are the symptoms of celiac disease, and how are they different from other digestive problems?
- Is celiac disease a sign of another health problem? Does it put me at risk of other health problems?
- Can celiac disease be cured?
- Can you recommend a support group for people with celiac disease?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.