Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started
My Medicine

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Celiac Disease Health Center

Font Size

Celiac Disease - What Happens

Celiac disease is a lifelong (chronic) condition that occurs when gluten triggers an abnormal immune system response that damages the small intestine camera.gif.

Your small intestine is lined with tiny, finger-shaped tissues called villi. The villi create a large surface that absorbs vitamins, sugars, and other nutrients as food passes through the small intestine. When a person who has celiac disease eats gluten, the villi flatten out and the intestinal lining becomes damaged. This decreases the area that can absorb nutrients.

In some cases, this inability to absorb nutrients may be bad enough to stunt growth and weaken bones. The loss of vitamins and minerals may lead to other problems, such as anemia, osteoporosis, or growth delays in children.

People who have celiac disease may have periods when their symptoms seem worse. Or symptoms may sometimes not be noticed at all. In adults, symptoms may occur at any age but most commonly occur during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Sometimes a person who has celiac disease doesn't have symptoms after eating foods that contain gluten. But damage to the small intestine is still occurring.

Within 2 weeks after starting a gluten-free diet, most people with celiac disease find that their symptoms improve. Symptoms should completely disappear within 3 months. But it takes up to 6 months or longer on a gluten-free diet for the villi to return to normal.

Staying on a gluten-free diet usually keeps symptoms from returning and lowers the risk for complications.

Refractory sprue

In rare cases, a gluten-free diet doesn't help. Some people get better for a while, but their symptoms come back even though they are still eating a gluten-free diet. This condition is called refractory sprue.

In these cases, corticosteroids or other medicines that change the immune system response may be used to control symptoms. People who do not improve on a gluten-free diet should be tested for other conditions, including T-cell lymphoma.

Celiac disease in children

In some children, symptoms begin shortly after cereal is introduced into the diet, usually after 6 months of age.

Symptoms of the disease are controlled by adopting a gluten-free diet. But a child needs to be watched for:

  • Delayed growth. Children with celiac disease don't absorb needed nutrients if they eat gluten. This may result in delayed growth if gluten is eaten regularly over a long period.
  • Nutritional deficiencies. Eating gluten also can lead to an imbalance of chemicals, minerals, and vitamins. These deficiencies should reverse with a gluten-free diet. But vitamins, iron, or calcium supplements are sometimes needed.
  • Tumors. As children who have celiac disease grow into adulthood, they may be at a slightly increased risk for getting cancer (lymphoma). Studies have found that following a gluten-free diet lowers the risk for lymphoma in adults.1

Children who have untreated celiac disease can become very ill . They may need to go to the hospital for treatment with fluids and medicine to restore nutrients. These treatments are usually short-term. Most children recover completely.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 14, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
Next Article:

Today on WebMD

thumbnail for Gluten-free Diet slideshow
Celiac Disease Symptoms
Gluten Intolerance Against Grain
Various vegetables in sautee pan
Expert Q And A Eating With Food Allergies
Celiac Hope
Fresh produce in fridge drawer