Celiac disease is a digestive disorder. Once thought to be a rare condition affecting only children, it is now known to be more common, affecting as many as two million Americans alone. It is a genetic disease and those with a close family member with a gluten allergy are at increased risk of it. For some individuals, the disease is latent until triggered by an event such as pregnancy, childbirth, surgery or extreme stress.
In a nutshell, individuals with this condition have a gluten intolerance. If they are exposed to gluten, it triggers an allergic reaction in which the body attacks itself, damaging and sometimes destroying the villi that line the small intestines.
Symptoms of a gluten allergy are much like those experienced with other food allergies, but can vary widely between individuals. Digestive problems are common with celiac disease, especially in infants and children. They may include abdominal pain and bloating, vomiting, constipation, chronic diarrhea or pale, fatty, or foul-smelling stools. Weight loss is common in children as a result of these symptoms. Gluten intolerance may also lead to defects in growth and development.
In adults, symptoms may be more varied. Many symptoms can be attributed to other conditions, which is why it may not be diagnosed right away. Symptoms may include bone and joint pain, arthritis, unexplained iron-deficient anemia, fatigue, bone loss or osteoporosis, seizures, tingling or numbness in the extremities, canker sores or dermatitis herpetaformis, an itchy skin rash. Women may also experience reproductive problems such as missed menstrual periods, miscarriages or infertility.
Left untreated, gluten intolerance can lead to more serious symptoms. Because the body’s response to a gluten allergy is to attack the villi of the small intestine, the body has a decreased ability to absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to malnutrition. Liver diseases or digestive cancers can also result.
Many people with celiac disease have other conditions in which the body attacks itself. These may include Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s disease or Sjogren’s syndrome. These conditions may bring additional symptoms.
Symptoms of these conditions may include frequent urination, vision disturbances or problems, slow healing time, weight loss or gain, jaundice, joint stiffness, muscle weakness or fatigue, irritability or increased occurrence of infections. Many of these conditions have similar symptoms to gluten intolerance, which may mask the underlying gluten allergy.
Because of the varied symptoms that come with celiac disease and the probability of more serious conditions also being present, you should talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms on a regular basis. A food journal may be helpful in diagnosing the condition if you can link gluten with symptoms. Keep in mind that gluten, while generally found in food, is also sometimes found in places you might not expect, including vitamins, medicines and lip balms.
To confirm a diagnosis of a gluten allergy, your doctor may run blood tests or order an intestinal biopsy. The blood tests look for specific antibodies which elevate in patients with gluten intolerance. If blood tests indicate celiac disease, the biopsy is generally done to confirm the diagnosis. The doctor will remove small pieces from the small intestine to look for villi damage.