What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a digestive problem that hurts your small intestine. It stops your body from taking in nutrients from food.
You may have celiac disease if you are sensitive to gluten. Gluten is a kind of protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats.
When you have celiac disease and you eat foods with gluten, your body has a reaction that is not normal. The part of your body that fights disease (the immune system) starts to hurt your small intestine. It attacks the tiny bumps (villi) that line your small intestine.
The villi help your body take in nutrients from food into your bloodstream. Without the villi, your small intestine can’t get enough nutrients, no matter how much food you eat.
Celiac disease is genetic. This means it can be passed down from parent to child.
More than 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Studies show that as many as 1 in every 133 Americans may have it. They may not know they have it.
Celiac disease is more common in people:
- Whose older family members (ancestors) came from Europe
- Who are white
- Who have type 1 diabetes
What causes celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic disease that runs in families. You may have celiac disease and not know it because you don’t have any symptoms.
Some things that may make symptoms start to appear are:
- Too much stress
- Physical injury
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
Celiac disease affects people in different ways. Some have symptoms as children. Others have symptoms only as adults. Some people have diarrhea and belly (abdominal) pain. Others may feel moody and grouchy or very sad (depressed).
Each person’s symptoms may vary. Common signs of celiac disease include:
- Constant (chronic) diarrhea or constipation
- Weight loss
- Pale, bad-smelling stool
- Unexplained low blood count that makes you feel tired (anemia)
- Tingling, numb feeling in the legs
- Missed menstrual periods (linked to too much weight loss)
- Teeth changing color or losing their enamel
Celiac disease can be painful. Some common pain symptoms are:
- Stomach pain or swelling (bloating) that keeps coming back
- Muscle cramps or bone pain
- Pain in the joints
- Painful skin rash
Children who have celiac disease may not grow fast enough.
You may have celiac disease but not have any symptoms. That is because the part of your small intestine that is not hurt can still take in enough nutrients. But you may still be at risk for problems of the disease.
Celiac disease symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your health care provider to be sure.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease can be hard to diagnose. Its symptoms may look like symptoms of other digestive problems such as:
- Crohn's disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Infected colon (diverticulosis)
- Intestinal infections
To see if you have celiac disease, your health care provider will look at your past health and do a physical exam. You may also have tests such as:
Blood work. This is done to check the level of infection-fighting cells (antibodies) you have to gluten in your blood. People with celiac disease have higher than normal levels of these cells. Your immune system makes these cells to help fight things (such as gluten) that the body feels are a danger.
Biopsy. This is the most accurate way to tell if you have celiac disease. A tissue sample (biopsy) is taken from your small intestine to check for damage to the villi. To do this, a long, thin tube (endoscope) is placed in your mouth, down to your stomach and into your small intestine. A tissue sample is taken using tools passed through the tube. The sample is checked in a lab.
What is the treatment for celiac disease?
If you have celiac disease, you must stop eating gluten. That is the only treatment for this disease. You must not eat gluten for the rest of your life. Eating gluten will do more damage to your small intestine.
In most cases, taking gluten out of your diet will stop your symptoms. It will heal any damage that was done to your intestine. It will also stop any more damage from happening.
Your symptoms will likely get better in a few days. Your small intestine should heal completely in 3 to 6 months. Your villi will be back and working again. If you are older, it may take up to 2 years for your body to heal.
Key points about celiac disease
- Celiac disease is a digestive problem that hurts your small intestine. It stops your body from taking in nutrients from food.
- You may have celiac disease if you are sensitive to gluten.
- If you have celiac disease and eat foods with gluten, your immune system starts to hurt your small intestine.
- Celiac disease is genetic. This means it can be passed from parent to child.
- It is more common in people who are white, have type 1 diabetes, and have older family members (ancestors) from Europe.
- You may have celiac disease and not know it because you don’t have any symptoms.
- It can be hard to diagnose. Its symptoms can look like symptoms of other digestive problems.
- The only treatment is to stop eating gluten.
- Once you stop eating gluten, your body will start to heal.
Next stepsTips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
- Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
- Sohrabi, Farrokh, MD