What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder that damages the small intestine. People with celiac disease can’t eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The disease can cause long-term digestive problems and keep you from getting the important nutrients you need. This differs from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, which causes gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms without the immune response typical of celiac disease. Wheat allergy is a temporary immune-response disorder in response to exposure that does not typically cause lasting harm to the body.

If you have celiac disease, you may have digestive problems or other symptoms. (Note: Some people with celiac disease have no symptoms.) Digestive symptoms are more common in children and can include:

  • Bloating, or a feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen

  • Chronic diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Gas

  • Nausea

  • Pale, foul-smelling or fatty stools that float

  • Stomach pain

  • Vomiting

For children with celiac disease, being unable to absorb nutrients, at a time when they are so important to normal growth and development, can lead to:

  • Damage to the enamel on the permanent teeth

  • Delayed puberty

  • Failure to thrive in infants

  • Mood changes

  • Slowed growth and short height

  • Weight loss

Your doctor may diagnose celiac disease with a medical and family history, a physical exam, blood tests, an intestinal biopsy, a skin biopsy and genetic tests. Doctors in the U.S. do not routinely screen people for celiac disease.

Doctors treat the disease by prescribing a gluten-free diet. Symptoms significantly improve for most people with celiac disease who follow this diet. A registered dietitian can teach you how to avoid gluten while eating for good health. You can maintain a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods that do not include gluten.

Anisha Bhadla