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Everything You Need to Know About Celiac Disease

Brianna Evers

Community Relations, Celiac Disease Foundation

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine when gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley is consumed.

Found in one percent of the global population, celiac disease is genetic, and having a first-degree relative with celiac disease can increase your risk for developing celiac disease by 10 percent. Several other risk factors increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with celiac disease, such as having type 1 diabetes, down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and autoimmune thyroid disease.

When a celiac disease patient ingests gluten, the protein attacks the lining of the small intestine and prevents absorption of nutrients. The effects of celiac disease are not limited to the gastrointestinal tract. It has neurological consequences as well, and it increases the probability of developing other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, epilepsy, migraines, heart disease, and intestinal cancers.

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet requires strict adherence to avoiding wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Oats must be specifically labeled gluten-free due to the potential for cross-contact with gluten-containing grains in the growing fields.

Diagnosing children as early as possible is essential to preventing irreversible, long-term complications. 

Common symptoms of celiac disease in children include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Chronic constipation
  • Chronic abdominal pain
  • Recurrent nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Short stature
  • Delayed puberty
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Behavioral issues
  • Headaches 

Left undiagnosed, celiac disease can cause:

  • Malnutrition
  • Bone fractures
  • Infertility and miscarriage (in adults)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Cancer, especially intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancers
  • Cardiac disease (myocarditis, cardiomyopathy)
  • Mental health disorders

If you suspect you may have celiac disease, your doctor can request a blood test to evaluate the celiac antibodies present. The gold standard for a celiac disease diagnosis is an endoscopy with a biopsy —however, in some cases patients may receive a diagnosis based on the level of celiac antibodies in their blood stream and if they carry the HLA-DQ2/8 genes. Remaining on a gluten-containing diet is a must before being diagnosed. The small intestine begins to heal once gluten is removed from the diet and can provide inaccurate test results. Once you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, a strict, life-long gluten-free diet must be maintained. 

Forty-three percent of the celiac disease population remain undiagnosed and at risk for long-term health complications. If you have unexplained symptoms or have a family member with celiac disease, complete the symptoms assessment tool to see if you have an increased risk for celiac disease. 

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