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Celiac Disease: A Complex Autoimmune Disorder

Celiac Disease: A Complex Autoimmune DisorderCeliac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease.

Long Term Health Effects
Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems. These include the development of other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.

Signs & Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of celiac disease can vary greatly and are different in children and adults. The most common signs for adults are diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. Adults may also experience bloating and gas, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, and vomiting.

However, more than half of adults with celiac disease have signs and symptoms that are not related to the digestive system, including:
• Anemia, usually resulting from iron deficiency
• Loss of bone density (osteoporosis) or softening of bone (osteomalacia)
• Itchy, blistery skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
• Damage to dental enamel
• Mouth ulcers
• Headaches and fatigue
• Nervous system injury, including numbness and tingling in the feet and hands, possible problems with balance, and cognitive impairment
• Joint pain
• Reduced functioning of the spleen (hyposplenism)
• Acid reflux and heartburn

In children under 2 years old, typical signs and symptoms of celiac disease include:
• Vomiting
• Chronic diarrhea
• Swollen belly
• Failure to thrive
• Poor appetite
• Muscle wasting

Older children may experience:
• Diarrhea
• Constipation
• Weight loss
• Irritability
• Short stature
• Delayed puberty
• Neurological symptoms, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, headaches, lack of muscle coordination and seizures

Dermatitis herpetiformis
Dermatitis herpetiformis is an itchy, blistering skin disease that stems from intestinal gluten intolerance. The rash usually occurs on the elbows, knees, torso, scalp and buttocks.

Dermatitis herpetiformis is often associated with changes to the lining of the small intestine identical to those of celiac disease, but the disease may not produce noticeable digestive symptoms.

Doctors treat dermatitis herpetiformis with a gluten-free diet or medication, or both, to control the rash.

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer. Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.

Undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease can lead to:
Long-Term Health Conditions
• Iron deficiency anemia
• Early onset osteoporosis or osteopenia
• Infertility and miscarriage
• Lactose intolerance
• Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
• Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
• Pancreatic insufficiency
• Intestinal lymphomas and other GI cancers (malignancies)
• Gall bladder malfunction
• Neurological manifestations, including ataxia, epileptic seizures, dementia, migraine, neuropathy, myopathy and multifocal leucoencephalopathy

If you feel you might have celiac disease, go to and complete the symptoms checklist (

When to see a doctor
Consult your doctor if you have diarrhea or digestive discomfort that lasts for more than two weeks. Consult your child’s doctor if your child is pale, irritable or failing to grow or has a potbelly and foul-smelling, bulky stools.

Be sure to consult your doctor before trying a gluten-free diet. If you stop or even reduce the amount of gluten you eat before you’re tested for celiac disease, you may change the test results.

Celiac disease tends to run in families. If someone in your family has the condition, ask your doctor if you should be tested. Also ask your doctor about testing if you or someone in your family has a risk factor for celiac disease, such as type 1 diabetes.


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