Celiac Disease

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that’s triggered when you eat gluten. It’s also known as celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. It’s what makes dough elastic and gives bread its chewy texture.

When someone with celiac disease eats something with gluten, their body overreacts to the protein and damages their villi, small finger-like projections found along the wall of their small intestine.

When your villi are injured, your small intestine can’t properly absorb nutrients from food. Eventually, this can lead to malnourishment, as well as loss of bone density, miscarriage, infertility or even neurological diseases or certain cancers.

If your celiac disease isn’t better after at least a year without gluten, it’s called refractory or nonresponsive celiac disease.

Most people with celiac disease never know that they have it. Researchers think that as few as 20% of people with the disease get the right diagnosis. The damage to your intestine is very slow, and symptoms are so varied that it can take years to get a diagnosis.

Celiac Disease Symptoms

Celiac disease isn’t the same thing as a food allergy, so the symptoms are different.

If you’re allergic to wheat but eat something with wheat in it, you may have itchy or watery eyes or a hard time breathing.

If you have celiac disease and accidentally eat something with gluten in it, you may have symptoms including:

Celiac disease can also cause a loss of bone density and reduced spleen function (hyposplenism).

Children with celiac disease are more likely to have intestinal problems, including:

  • Bloating or belly swelling
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Pale, foul-smelling poop
  • Upset stomach or vomiting
  • Weight loss

If celiac disease keeps a child’s body from absorbing the nutrients they need, they can have problems including:

Not everyone with celiac disease will have these symptoms. Some people don’t notice any problems, which can make diagnosis difficult.

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Celiac Disease Causes and Risk Factors

Research hasn’t found a definite cause of celiac disease. It tends to run in families and might be linked to certain genes. Stressful medical events such as a viral infection or surgery can trigger it. So can emotional trauma or pregnancy.

If one of your close family members has it, like a parent or sibling, you have a 1 in 10 chance of getting celiac disease.

The disease is most common among Caucasians and people who have other diseases, including:

Celiac Disease Complications

Celiac disease can be dangerous if you don’t get treatment. Complications may include:

Celiac Disease Tests and Diagnosis

Doctors use two blood tests to help find out if you have celiac disease:

  • Serology tests that look for certain antibodies
  • Genetic testing to look for human leukocyte antigens to rule out celiac disease

If you're on a gluten-free diet, you'll need to come off it before having the antibody test so the results will be correct.

If the blood test shows that you might have celiac disease, you’ll probably need to have an endoscopy. This is a procedure in which your doctor can look at your small intestine and take a bit of tissue to see whether it’s damaged.

Celiac Disease Treatment

No drugs treat celiac disease. You’ll need to change your diet. Unless they’re labeled as gluten-free, don’t eat foods that are typically made with grains, including:

  • Beer
  • Bread, cake, and other baked goods
  • Cereals
  • Pasta

Common products like medications and toothpastes can also contain gluten, so it’s important to check the label.

If you have a serious lack of nutrients, your doctor may have you take gluten-free vitamins and mineral supplements and will give you medication if you have a skin rash.

After you’ve been on a gluten-free diet for a few weeks, your small intestine should begin to heal, and you’ll start to feel better.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on October 15, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Celiac Disease," “Peripheral Neuropathy.”

Beyond Celiac: "What is Celiac Disease?" “Non-responsive Celiac Disease.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definition and Facts for Celiac Disease."

Celiac Disease Foundation: "Understanding Celiac Disease," “What is Celiac Disease?”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Celiac Disease (Non-Tropical Sprue).”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Refractory Celiac Disease.”

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