Celiac disease (also called celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is an autoimmune disease affecting the digestive tract. When people with celiac disease eat food with gluten—a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley—it provokes an immune reaction that causes flattening and damage to the small protrusions (villi) in the small intestine that absorb nutrients.
The resulting smooth surface in the lining of the intestine inhibits the ability to digest and absorb nutrients in many, if not all, foods. As a result, people with untreated celiac disease can suffer from malnutrition and a host of symptoms caused by malnutrition. Celiac disease is also classified as a disease of malabsorption.
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It is not known exactly why people with celiac disease react to gluten-containing foods in such a negative manner. If you have celiac disease, chances are that some members of your immediate family have it as well. The disease can occur at any age. In some cases, symptoms of the disease do not emerge until after some form of trigger. Triggers can include an infection, pregnancy, severe stress, surgery, or physical injury. To prevent symptoms, a person with celiac disease must avoid foods containing gluten.
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Last reviewed December 2015 by Daus Mahnke, MD Last Updated: 12/31/2015