What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly reacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, as if it were a poison.

It affects as many as one in 141 people, although most have not been diagnosed.

When someone with celiac consumes gluten, the immune system reacts by destroying the part of the small intestine that absorbs vital nutrients. This malabsorption can lead to serious illness.

Symptoms of celiac disease can include bloating, gas, diarrhea, weight loss or gain, constant fatigue or weakness, headaches, infertility, depression that does not respond to medication, abdominal pain, bone pain and anemia. For children, symptoms include failure to thrive, short stature, distended abdomen, dental enamel defects and unusual behavior changes.

Celiac disease is tricky, however, and sometimes has no outward symptoms. Since it is a genetic disease, relatives of those who have been diagnosed have an increased risk.

Diagnosis is made through a series of blood tests, followed by a biopsy of the small bowel to see if the absorbing lining is damaged.

The only treatment for celiac disease is to follow the gluten-free diet. When gluten is taken out of the diet, the small intestine heals and a return to full health can be expected. Long-term complications of undiagnosed celiac include malnutrition, lymphoma, osteoporosis, neurological complications and miscarriage.

There is also a skin form of celiac disease called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), which appears as an itchy, blistering rash. It is diagnosed through a special skin biopsy and is also treated with the gluten-free diet.

This material is not intended to provide medical advice, which should be obtained directly from a physician.

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