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Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder in which gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye) causes a person's immune system to damage the small intestine. This affects the body's absorption of all nutrients.

Causes & Risk Factors

Doctors do not fully understand what causes celiac disease. Eating gluten seems to be involved. There is most likely a genetic factor. Patients with specific genes develop the disease after exposure to gluten. Some evidence suggests that earlier exposure in infancy can cause a more severe disease than later exposure.

Risk factors that increase your chance of having celiac disease include:

  • Family members with celiac disease
  • History of another autoimmune disease
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis — a skin condition associated with celiac disease

Celiac Disease Symptoms

Symptoms vary and may start in childhood or adulthood and may not develop if a large section of the intestine is undamaged. Malnutrition may produce the first signs of the condition, which are often the most serious.

Celiac Symptoms in Adults

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Hearty or a poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bone pain
  • Behavior changes
  • Muscle cramps and joint pain
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Skin rash
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • Infertility

Testing for Celiac Disease

Diagnosing your condition may include blood or stool testing, as well as upper endoscopy with biopsy of the small intestine.

Treating Celiac Disease

A lifelong, gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for celiac disease. It is very effective. Additional intake of gluten can damage the intestine, even if you have no symptoms. Since gluten is added to many foods, the diet can be complicated and difficult to follow. Some patients find support groups helpful. We recommend seeing a registered dietician

Gluten-Free Diet

You must avoid all foods containing:

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley

This includes most bread, pasta, cereal, and processed foods. Special gluten-free breads and pastas are available. They are made with potato, rice, soy or bean flour. A dietitian can assist you with meal planning.

Gluten is found in some unexpected foods and beverages. Carefully read all labels. Other foods with gluten include:

  • Flavored coffee
  • Beer
  • Tuna in vegetable broth
  • Packaged rice mixes
  • Some frozen potatoes
  • Creamed vegetables
  • Commercially prepared vegetables, salads, and salad dressings
  • Pudding
  • Some ice cream
Do You Need Supplements?

Patients with celiac disease should be tested to make sure they are getting enough nutrients. Bone density testing may also be needed. If you lack vitamins or minerals, the doctor may advise taking supplements. However, once the disease is under control with a gluten-free diet, this is often not necessary.

Living with Celiac Disease: A Personal Story

Getting diagnosed with celiac disease can feel daunting. But adopting a gluten-free diet isn't impossible, as explained by this personal story of living with celiac disease.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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