Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the digestive tract. With 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. People with untreated celiac disease often become malnourished.
Cross Section of Small Intestine
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Celiac disease is caused by a response to eating foods with gluten. Doctors do not fully understand why the response happens in some people and not others. There is most likely a genetic factor. Those with specific genes develop the disease after exposure to gluten.
Risk factors that increase your chance of having celiac disease include:
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:
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 intestines. This can be done with endoscopy.
A life-long, 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 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 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:
Ordering at restaurants can be especially challenging, since many foods on the menu may contain gluten.
People 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. However, if you have a child at increased risk for celiac disease, their doctor may advise you on the best time to introduce gluten products.
If celiac disease runs in your family, ask your doctor about a screening test. If you or your child has celiac disease the earlier you start the gluten-free diet, the less damage there will be to the intestine.
Celiac Disease Foundation
National Celiac Association
Canadian Celiac Association
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Celiac disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease. Accessed January 10, 2018.
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Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Daus Mahnke, MD
Last Updated: 11/23/2015