Celiac disease is a genetic disease that runs in families. A person can have the disease and not know it until it is triggered by severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection or childbirth.
Celiac disease affects people in different ways. Some persons may develop symptoms as children, whereas others do not experience symptoms until adulthood. Some may have diarrhea and abdominal pains, while others have irritability, depression, constipation or even menstrual cycle abnormalities with the onset of the disease.
While the following symptoms can be seen with celiac disease, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Recurring abdominal pain and bloating
- Pale, foul-smelling stool
- Unexplained anemia
- Muscle cramps and/or bone pain
- Pain in the joints
- Tingling numbness in the legs
- Delayed growth
- Chronic constipation
- Painful skin rash
- Missed menstrual periods (which is linked to excessive weight loss)
- Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel.
Some people with celiac disease are asymptomatic, because the undamaged part of the small intestine is still able to absorb enough nutrients. However, these people are still at risk for complications of the disease.
The symptoms of celiac disease may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your child’s doctor for a diagnosis.
Since symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of other digestive diseases such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis and intestinal infections, it can be difficult to diagnose.
In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for celiac disease may include the following:
- Blood work to measure the level of antibodies to gluten. Researchers have found that people with celiac disease have higher than normal levels of certain antibodies in their blood. Learn more about blood tests at CHOC.
- Biopsy. To diagnose celiac disease, the doctor may remove a tiny piece of tissue from the small intestine to check for damage to the villi. During the procedure, the doctor eases a long, thin tube, called an endoscope, through the mouth and stomach into the small intestine. A sample of tissue is then taken using instruments passed through the endoscope. Learn more about endoscopy.
A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for people with celiac disease. Adhering to a gluten-free diet is a lifetime requirement, as eating any gluten will further damage the intestine.
For most people, eliminating gluten from their diet will stop symptoms, heal intestinal damage that has already occurred and prevent further damage. Your child will typically see an improvement in symptoms within days of starting the diet. The small intestine is usually completely healed within three to six months, with villi intact and working.