Two million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, an immune system disorder. Celiac disease occurs when a person has an intolerance to gluten - a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. Celiac disease is also called celiac sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
In celiac disease, a reaction happens in the small intestine when gluten is ingested. This reaction damages or destroys the villi that line the small intestine. Villi are needed to absorb nutrients from foods. When villi are wiped out, people become malnourished no matter how much food they eat.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of celiac disease may include:
- Stomach cramps
- Chronic diarrhea
- Fatty stools
- Weight loss
Celiac disease symptoms vary greatly between people and can mimic signs of other bowel disorders. Children commonly have digestive symptoms. In adults, celiac disease is more likely to show up as:
- Bone or joint pain
- Osteoporosis or bone loss
- Infertility, miscarriage, or irregular menstrual periods
- Depression or anxiety
- Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
- Canker sores inside the mouth
- An itchy rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
How is it diagnosed?
People with celiac disease have higher levels of certain antibodies in their blood. A simple test for these antibodies can help with the diagnosis, but a biopsy of the small intestine is needed to confirm celiac disease.
Who gets it?
The cause of celiac disease is unknown, but it seems to run in families. About 1 in 133 people in the U.S. have celiac disease. But about 1 in 22 people who have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with celiac disease have celiac disease themselves.
You're also more likely to get celiac disease if you have another immune system disorder such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.
Celiac disease may appear at any point in a person's life. It can be triggered by surgery, a virus, pregnancy, childbirth, or other stressful events.
Treatment for celiac disease
Celiac disease cannot be cured, but it can be managed by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Most people see improvement within days of adopting a gluten-free diet. In children and teens, the bowel may return to normal within 3 to 6 months. It may take longer for the bowel to heal in adults, depending on how much damage was done.
A gluten-free diet must be a lifelong commitment. This diet can be hard to follow because gluten is also found in many hidden sources. It can be in sauces, most processed foods, medications, and even lip balm.
Finding gluten-free foods
A registered dietitian can help you identify foods that don't contain gluten and offer tips on how to stick with your diet. Gluten-free breads, pastas, and other items are available in some grocery stores and restaurants.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires food companies to clearly list wheat and other common allergens on product labels. It also requires the FDA to set rules for using the term "gluten-free" on product labels.
Created on 06/28/2007
Updated on 04/25/2011
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Celiac disease
- Celiac Disease Foundation. Celiac disease symptoms.