There are approximately 3 million Americans who are suffering from celiac disease. It is defined as an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion or consumption of gluten leads to damage to the small intestine of the body. This disease is seen in individuals who are genetically predisposed. Celiac disease is often called gluten sensitive enteropathy or coeliac or sprue. Gluten is a protein that is usually found in wheat, rye, barley, and other similar grains and is the protein responsible for lending a chewy texture to bread and making the dough elastic. When this gluten is eaten by those intolerant to it (celiac disease sufferers), their bodies overreact to the protein and their villi, which are small, finger-like projections found on the inner walls of the small intestine, become damaged. Over a period of time, this damage can cause malabsorption, whereby the absorption of nutrients is prevented; this can further lead to complications, such as bloating, fatigue, weight loss, diarrhea, anemia, and even serious complications. When seen in children, it can seriously affect their development and growth.

Risk factors leading to celiac disease

Because it is a genetic disorder, celiac disease is commonly seen in the family when a parent, brother, or sister has it, but having the gene for celiac disease does not mean that one has the disease. Certain stressful events can also trigger the disease, such as a surgery, viral infection, emotional trauma, or even post pregnancy. The disease is commonly seen in Caucasians and also in those individuals who are suffering from other conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and/or Addison’s disease.

Symptoms of celiac disease

The symptoms of celiac disease tend to vary and are drastically different in children and adults. Usual symptoms in adults include diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, nausea, constipation, bloating, gas, vomiting, and abdominal pain along with signs that are not related to the digestive system, such as anemia, mouth ulcers, loss of bone density, dental enamel damage, blistered and itchy skin rash, joint pain, acid reflux, heartburn, fatigue, headaches, injury to the nervous system, such as tingling sensation in the hands and legs plus numbness, imbalance problems, and, sometimes, cognitive impairment.

The symptoms seen in children are vomiting, swollen belly, poor appetite, chronic diarrhea, wasting of muscles in those under 2 years; and constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, delayed puberty, short stature, irritability, and neurological symptoms.

Diagnosis and treatment

The symptoms vary greatly, thus making it difficult to diagnose the disease; also, the damage to the small intestine occurs over the years. However, tests such as genetic testing (for leukocyte antigens) and serological test to find antibodies may be conducted. An endoscopy follows a positive blood test.

Following a strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment available, and this includes avoiding wheat, barley, rye, semolina, malt, graham flour, durum, bulgar, spelt, farina, and triticale and items like pasta, bread, cakes, baked items, beer, and other gluten-containing products. Gluten-free vitamins and mineral supplements may be prescribed.