Home > Health & Wellness > Health Library > 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 is not normal. This damages the inside of your
small intestine so that it can't do a good job of absorbing nutrients from your food.
It's important to get treatment, because
celiac disease can:
In children, celiac disease can slow growth and weaken bones. If it isn't treated, your child can get very sick. Call a doctor if
your child is losing a lot of weight, has diarrhea, or feels weak and tired for
many days for no reason.
Doctors don't really
know what causes the disease. 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.
Symptoms of celiac disease
These symptoms can be very mild.
people vomit after they eat gluten. This is more likely to happen in children
than in adults.
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.
make sure 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
Often celiac disease is mistaken
for another problem such as
food intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome. You may be treated for one of these problems first.
After your celiac disease diagnosis, your doctor may do more tests, such as blood tests to check for anemia. You may also have a bone density exam. These tests will help your doctor
find out if you have other problems, such as osteoporosis, that can arise when
you have celiac disease.
To get and stay well, you need
to avoid all foods that have gluten. For many people, this means changing everything about the way they eat. This can be challenging. For help, work with a dietitian who has experience with gluten-free diets. Together you can find foods you like that don't have gluten.
Avoid all foods made with wheat, rye, barley, or triticale. Don't drink any beer or ale.
You can still eat eggs,
meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Flours and starches made from rice, corn,
buckwheat, potatoes, and soybeans are also okay. Within 2 weeks after starting
a gluten-free eating plan, most people find that their symptoms start to get better.
For a short time after your treatment starts, you might
also need to stop drinking cow's milk and foods made with it. Most of the time,
but not always, people can have these foods again after their intestine has
Some foods that are labeled "wheat-free" may still have
gluten. Gluten can be in things you may not expect, like medicine, vitamins,
and lipstick. Be sure to read labels.
Watch out for the following phrases. They could mean that a product contains gluten:
Learning about celiac disease:
Living with celiac disease:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Although the exact cause of
celiac disease isn't known, having certain
genes increases your risk. You are more likely to have
these genes if you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter) who has celiac disease.
Environmental factors, such as infections, may trigger
changes in the small intestine of a person with these genes. Then, eating foods
that contain gluten can trigger an abnormal
immune system response. Over time, this response can cause digestion and
Symptoms of celiac disease vary widely and may come and go. They may be very mild and go completely unnoticed, or
they may be severe and impact daily life.
If not treated, celiac disease can lead to other problems. You may have problems with memory and concentration. Children may be more irritable. Adults may show signs of depression.
Symptoms of celiac disease also occur with some other conditions.
is a lifelong (chronic) condition that occurs when
gluten triggers an abnormal
immune system response that damages the
Your small intestine is lined with tiny, finger-shaped tissues called villi. The villi create a large surface that
absorbs vitamins, sugars, and other nutrients as food passes through the small
intestine. When a person who has celiac disease eats gluten, the
villi flatten out and the intestinal lining becomes damaged. This decreases
the area that can absorb nutrients.
In some cases, this
inability to absorb nutrients may be bad enough to stunt
growth and weaken bones. The loss of vitamins and minerals may lead to other problems, such as anemia, osteoporosis, or growth delays in children.
People who have celiac disease
may have periods when their symptoms seem worse. Or symptoms may sometimes not
be noticed at all. In adults, symptoms may occur at any age but most commonly occur during the 20s, 30s,
Sometimes a person who has
celiac disease doesn't have symptoms after eating foods that contain
gluten. But damage to the small intestine is still
Within 2 weeks
after starting a gluten-free diet, most people with celiac disease find that their
symptoms improve. Symptoms should completely
disappear within 3 months. But it takes up to 6 months or longer on a
gluten-free diet for the villi to return to normal.
Staying on a gluten-free diet usually keeps symptoms from returning and lowers the risk for
In rare cases, a gluten-free diet doesn't help. Some people get better for a while, but their symptoms come back even though they are still eating a gluten-free diet. This
condition is called refractory sprue.
In these cases,
corticosteroids or other medicines that change the
immune system response may be used to control
symptoms. People who do not improve on a gluten-free diet should be tested for
other conditions, including T-cell lymphoma.
In some children,
symptoms begin shortly after cereal is introduced into the diet, usually after 6
months of age.
Symptoms of the disease
are controlled by adopting a gluten-free diet. But a child needs to be watched for:
Children who have untreated celiac disease can become very
ill . They may need to go to the hospital for treatment with fluids and medicine to
restore nutrients. These treatments are usually short-term. Most children
The risk for celiac disease may run in the family. If a close relative (parent, child, or sibling) has it, your chances of having it are higher.
When a person has inherited this risk, an infection or something else in the environment can trigger changes in the small intestine and cause celiac disease.
Also, celiac disease is more common in people who have:
Call a doctor if you or your
child has symptoms of
celiac disease, such as:
If you or your child has been diagnosed with celiac
disease, call a doctor if:
If you think that
you or your child may have celiac disease, watchful waiting is appropriate if
mild symptoms of diarrhea or vomiting last only for a few days. Talk with a
doctor if your child continues to have diarrhea and doesn't seem to be gaining
weight as expected even though he or she has a good appetite.
Health professionals who may evaluate symptoms of
celiac disease in adults or children include:
A doctor who specializes in problems with the digestive
system (gastroenterologist) should be consulted to confirm the
diagnosis with a small intestine
biopsy. In addition, a
dietitian can help you plan and stay on a
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
medical history, physical exam, and lab tests
often point to celiac disease. The diagnosis is confirmed with a small
biopsy collected during an
endoscopy, where a small tube is guided
down a person's throat to the small intestine.
Tests for celiac disease should be done when you or your child is still eating a diet that includes gluten. If you have already started a gluten-free diet before these tests are done, the doctor may suggest that you or your child eat a certain amount of gluten before the tests.
Celiac disease triggers the
immune system to produce certain
antibodies. Blood tests that find and measure these
A biopsy taken during an
upper gastrointestinal endoscopy may be done to
confirm celiac disease after antibodies have been found. Sometimes a biopsy
detects celiac disease when a person is being tested for another
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.
Other tests that may be done
Tests to look for
other conditions and diseases may be needed if a diagnosis of
celiac disease is suspected but symptoms don't improve with a gluten-free diet.
You can prepare your child for these tests. Knowing why tests are being done and what to expect can help make the tests less scary.
The treatment for
celiac disease is 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:
You may also be advised
to temporarily avoid milk or milk products until your intestine heals. Then you may be able to gradually reintroduce them.
For more information about following a gluten-free diet, see Home Treatment.
If you have nutritional deficiencies, you may need other treatments, such as vitamin, iron, and calcium supplements.
Treatment for complications varies depending on the
specific problems and their severity. For example, some adults may require
long-term treatment for complications, such as
If it seems that you or your child
is not getting better, you may need:
Celiac disease can't be prevented.
If you already have celiac disease, you can prevent symptoms—and damage to your small intestine—by eating a gluten-free diet.
Some adults with celiac disease have a poorly functioning or nonfunctional spleen, which is a risk factor for developing a pneumococcal infection. For this reason, your doctor may recommend that you get immunized with the pneumococcal vaccine.
Having celiac disease means that you will need to follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life.
This can be hard to face, especially if you don't have symptoms.
With time and effort, you'll be able to change your eating habits and stay healthy. These tips may help:
Following a special diet may be especially hard for
children and teens, who often don't want to feel different from their friends.
Also, teens seem to have fewer symptoms than younger children after eating
Here are some things you can do to help:
symptoms of celiac disease return after your child or you were symptom-free
while following a
gluten-free diet, it usually means that foods
containing gluten were eaten. Here are some tips:
Call your doctor if you are confident that your or
your child's diet is gluten-free but symptoms have returned or continue.
Medicine is only needed if you or your child becomes seriously ill with
celiac disease or if
complications develop. Some complications, such as delayed growth, can't be treated
Your doctor may recommend taking a vitamin
supplement to make sure you get enough vitamins and minerals.
Some doctors prescribe steroid
medicines to ease inflammation in the intestine and to help it absorb nutrients
better. But not all doctors agree on this.
other possible illnesses have been ruled out, steroids or other medicines
that change the
immune system response may be used to treat refractory
sprue that doesn't respond to a gluten-free diet.
Speaking with a counselor, a
psychologist, or a
psychiatrist may help you cope with celiac disease by changing certain thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
registered dietitian who is familiar with celiac
disease can help you create a practical
This nonprofit, member-based organization has information for people who have
celiac disease and for their families, such as ways they can incorporate a
gluten-free diet into their daily lives.
This clearinghouse is a service of the U.S. National
Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the
U.S. National Institutes of Health. The clearinghouse answers questions;
develops, reviews, and sends out publications; and coordinates information
resources about digestive diseases. Publications produced by the clearinghouse
are reviewed carefully for scientific accuracy, content, and readability.
Lebwohl B, et al. (2013). Mucosal healing and risk for lymphoproliferative malignancy in celiac disease: A population-based cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine, 159(3): 169–175.
Other Works Consulted
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2004).
Celiac Disease (AHRQ Evidence Report/Technology
Assessment No. 104). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
American Diabetes Association (2013). Standards of medical care in diabetes—2013. Diabetes Care, 36(Suppl 1): S11–S66.
Case S (2005). The gluten-free diet: How to provide effective education and resources. Gastroenterology, 128(4, Suppl 1): S128–S134.
Dewar DH, Ciclitira PJ (2005). Clinical features and diagnosis of celiac disease. Gastroenterology, 128(4, Suppl 1): S19–S24.
Farrell RJ, Kelly CP (2010). Celiac disease and
refractory celiac disease. In M Feldman et al., eds., Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp.
1797–1820. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Gluten-free drugs for celiac disease patients (2008).
Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 50(1281):
Green PHR, Cellier C (2007). Celiac disease.
New England Journal of Medicine, 357(17):
Haboubi NY, et al. (2006). Coeliac disease and oats: A
systematic review. Postgraduate Medical Journal,
Hill ID, et al. (2005). Guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease in children: Recommendations of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 40(1): 1–19.
Current as of:
September 16, 2013
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Jerry S. Trier, MD - Gastroenterology
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