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
Inner circle demonstrates protrusions affected by celiac disease.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
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
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:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea, lack of appetite
- Vomiting, in later stages of disease
- Bulky stools with a strong odor
- Short stature
- Delayed puberty
- Pale skin
- Cracked sores in the corners of the mouth
- Shallow sores inside the mouth
- Foul-smelling, light-colored, oily stool
- Weight loss
- Hearty or a poor appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Bone pain
- Behavior changes
- Muscle cramps and joint pain
- Skin rash
- Dental problems
- Missed menstrual periods
- A change in limb sensation
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your body tissues and fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
Images may be taken of your body intestines. This can be done with endoscopy.
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 intestines, 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.
You must avoid all foods containing:
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
- Tuna in vegetable broth
- Packaged rice mixes
- Some frozen potatoes
- Creamed vegetables
- Commercially prepared vegetables, salads, and salad dressings
- Some ice cream
- Many other products
Ordering at restaurants can be especially challenging, since many foods on the menu may contain gluten.
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.
There are no guidelines for preventing celiac disease because the cause is not understood. If celiac disease runs in your family, ask your doctor about a screening test. The earlier you start the gluten-free diet, the less damage there will be to the intestine.
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Last reviewed December 2014 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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