Senior Communications Director, Beyond Celiac
I was first treated for severe iron deficiency anemia when I was 20 years old. My doctor was dismissive. I was told to take oral iron supplements. The cause, celiac disease, went undiscovered for another two-and-a-half decades.
Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged when a person ingests gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Despite there being over 300 symptoms of celiac disease, many doctors still only focus on gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea, when diagnosing and treating a patient.
While many may present these “classic GI symptoms” of celiac disease, many others may not experience them. Instead, they may have other health issues or symptoms such as joint pain, anxiety, or debilitating rashes. This makes celiac disease difficult to diagnose. However, non-GI symptoms are common in those with celiac disease.
1. Symptoms caused by malabsorption
In addition to iron deficiency anemia like mine, other conditions stemming from the small intestine’s impaired ability to absorb iron, folate, calcium, and vitamin D include: osteoporosis, fertility problems, delayed growth/failure to thrive, and even some cancers. Malabsorption caused by celiac disease may also play a role in brittle hair, nails, and teeth.
2. Neurological and psychological symptoms
Two of the most commonly reported symptoms of celiac disease are fatigue and “brain fog,” described as an inability to concentrate. Other neurological and psychological symptoms include: migraines or other headaches, joint pain, tingling/pain in the extremities, poor balance (ataxia), and even anxiety, irritability, and sadness.
3. Oral and dental manifestations
A dentist might be the first one to spot signs of trouble. Discolored teeth, dental defects, and canker sores may be signs of hidden celiac disease.
A severe, chronic skin condition associated with celiac disease is dermatitis herpetiformis, an extremely itchy rash with blistering skin.
5. Other autoimmune diseases
Having an autoimmune disease makes you more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases, such as celiac disease. Rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, type 1 diabetes, and Sjogren’s disease are examples of other autoimmune diseases that have been connected to celiac disease.
6. No symptoms at all
Asymptomatic, also known as silent celiac disease, is defined as having no outward symptoms. It is unclear why some people have symptoms while others do not. However, people with celiac disease who don’t experience symptoms may still have intestinal damage if they ingest gluten, even if they do not feel sick. People with silent celiac disease are often diagnosed from screening based on other risk factors, such as family history.
You can learn more and go through a symptoms checklist at BeyondCeliac.org/checklist.