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Definition

Celiac disease is a chronic digestive and immune disorder that damages the small intestine. The immune system overreacts to foods that contain gluten. This is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. Eating these foods damages bulges (villi) in the small intestine. This makes it hard for the body to get the nutrients that it needs.

Cross Section of Small Intestine
small intestine villi

Inner lining demonstrates protrusions affected by celiac disease.

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

This problem is caused by a response to eating foods that have gluten. It is not known why this happens in some people. Genetics play a role.

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in women. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Having certain genes
  • Having family members with the disease
  • Having certain health problems, such as:
  • Dietary factors in people at higher risk for the disease

Symptoms

Symptoms vary from person to person. They are also not the same in children as in adults.

In Children

  • Belly pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lack of hunger
  • Diarrhea
  • Bulky stools with a strong odor
  • Irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Sores in and around the mouth
  • Slowed growth
  • Delayed puberty

In Adults

  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Foul-smelling, light-colored, oily stool
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite changes
  • Lack of energy
  • Belly pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Skin rash

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Blood tests will be done to look for antibodies and genes linked to the disease.

Images will be taken of the intestines. This can be done with endoscopy. A tissue sample may be taken at the same time. This can be done with a biopsy.

Treatment

There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms. This can only be done with a life-long, gluten-free diet. A dietitian can help with meal planning. A person must avoid all foods that contain wheat, rye, and barley. This will mean reading food labels carefully. Special care will also need to be taken when eating out.

Vitamin and mineral supplements may also be given to improve nutrition.

Prevention

This risk of this problem may be lowered by delaying when gluten is given to young children who are at risk. This decision will need to be made between a parent and the child's doctor.

RESOURCES:

Celiac Disease Foundation
https://celiac.org

National Celiac Association
http://www.csaceliacs.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Celiac Association
https://www.celiac.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Caio G, Volta U, et al. Celiac disease: a comprehensive current review. BMC Med. 2019 Jul 23;17(1):142.

Celiac disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/celiac-disease. Accessed March 24, 2021.

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 March 24, 2021.

Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD  Last Updated: 03/25/2021