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Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease

What is Celiacs?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the digestive tract. In celiac disease, eating food with gluten damages little bulges in the small intestine. These bulges, called villi, absorb nutrients from foods. The condition affects the absorption of all nutrients. Untreated patients often become malnourished.

Cross Section of Small Intestine

small intestine villi
Inner circle demonstrates little protrusions affected by Celiac disease.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

What Causes Gluten Intolerance?

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. There is some evidence 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, such as:
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis—A skin condition associated with celiac disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Celiac Disease Symptoms

Symptoms vary and may start in childhood or adulthood. Children often have different symptoms than adults. Symptoms 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.

Signs and symptoms may include:

Celiac Symptoms in Children

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea, lack of appetite
  • Vomiting, in later stages of disease
  • Diarrhea
  • Bulky stools with a strong odor
  • Irritability
  • Short stature
  • Delayed puberty
  • Pale skin
  • Seizures
  • Cracked sores in the corners of the mouth
  • Shallow sores inside the mouth

Celiac Symptoms in Adults

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Foul-smelling, light-colored, oily stool
  • Weight loss
  • Hearty or a poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bone pain
  • Behavior changes
  • Muscle cramps and joint pain
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Skin rash
  • Dental problems
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • Infertility
  • A change in limb sensation

Testing for Celiac Disease

Tests may include:

  • Your bodily fluids and waste products may need to be tested for evidence of malabsorption. This can be done with:
    • Blood tests
    • Stool tests
  • You may need to have a sample of tissue removed for testing. This can be done with biopsy.
  • Your intestine may need to be examined. This can be done with endoscopy.

Treating Celiac Disease

A lifelong, gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. It is very effective. Symptoms usually go away within days of starting the diet. However, healing of the villi may take months or years. Additional intake of gluten can damage the intestine, even if you have no symptoms. Delayed growth and tooth discoloration may be permanent. Nutritional supplements, given through a vein, may be needed if the intestinal damage does not heal. Since gluten is added to many foods, the diet can be complicated and often frustrating. Some patients find support groups helpful.

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

It may seem daunting to get diagnosed with celiac disease. 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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