What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a problem some people have with foods that contain gluten. Gluten is a type of protein. It's found in the grains wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a wheat-rye cross).
When you have this disease and you eat food with gluten in it, the gluten triggers an immune response that isn't normal. This damages the inside of your small intestine so that it can't do a good job of absorbing nutrients from your food.
In children, celiac disease can slow growth and weaken bones. If it isn't treated, your child can get very sick.
What causes it?
Doctors think celiac disease may be a problem with your immune system. Eating foods that contain gluten may trigger the problem. Having certain genes can increase your chance of getting it. You're more likely to have these genes and get celiac disease if a close family member has the disease.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Gas and bloating.
- Belly pain.
- Diarrhea or other changes in bowel movements.
- Weight loss.
- Feeling very tired.
- Tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands or feet (neuropathy).
Symptoms may come and go. They may be very mild and go completely unnoticed. Or they may be severe symptoms that impact your daily life.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam.
You may have blood tests to see if you have certain antibodies that could mean you have the disease. Celiac disease triggers the immune system to produce these antibodies.
To find out for sure if you have celiac disease, you will probably have an endoscopy. In this test, a doctor uses a thin, lighted tube to look at the inside of your small intestine. Your doctor can also take small samples of tissue to be tested in a lab. This is called a biopsy.
If the biopsy shows signs of celiac disease (such as abnormal villi and inflammation in the small intestine), a gluten-free diet will be recommended.
A diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed if the diet makes symptoms go away and if antibody tests become normal.
How is celiac disease treated?
The treatment for celiac disease is to avoid all foods that have gluten. This is called a gluten-free diet. Eating even the smallest amount of gluten can cause symptoms such as weight loss and diarrhea.
A gluten-free diet means:
- Avoiding all foods with wheat, barley, rye, triticale (a wheat-rye cross), or oats. Oats may later be slowly brought back into the diet.
- Avoiding beer unless it's gluten-free. Beers with and without alcohol contain gluten unless the label specifically says they're gluten-free.
Gluten can also be in things you may not expect, like medicine, vitamins, and lipstick.
You may also be advised to avoid milk or milk products for a while until your intestine heals. Then you may be able to slowly reintroduce them.
If you have nutritional deficiencies, you may need other treatments. Treatments include vitamin, iron, and calcium supplements.
How can you care for yourself?
Eating a gluten-free diet will help you avoid symptoms and damage to the small intestine. It helps to read food labels carefully and look for hidden gluten. Also look for gluten in medicine and some food additives.
Current as of: March 21, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.