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What is Celiac Disease? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Gluten-free foods and food products have been popping up on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves for the past several years. While some may mistake gluten-free choices as the latest weight-loss trend, for individuals living with celiac disease, consuming gluten can trigger painful and dangerous symptoms. Experts estimate that about one in 100 people has celiac disease, and that 2.5 million Americans are suffering undiagnosed, putting themselves at risk of severe complications if the condition continues to go untreated. If you believe that you may be at risk of celiac disease, or are experiencing its symptoms, talk to your doctor.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease, also referred to as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a serious, genetic autoimmune disease triggered by consuming gluten. Gluten is a protein found in barley, wheat, rye, and other grains. When an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten, it damages the villi of the small intestine—small, finger-like projections that increase the surface area of the small intestinal walls, creating more areas for absorption. When the villi are damaged, it is more difficult for the body to properly absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, resulting in malnourishment and other dangerous complications, such as anemia, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, infertility, some cancers, and other autoimmune diseases.

What are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

Individuals suffering from celiac disease report such symptoms and health complications as:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Bloating, gas
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Anemia
  • Joint pain
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (a skin rash marked with itchy blisters)
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet

It is important to note that celiac disease symptoms can vary significantly, especially between adults and children.

Complications from Celiac Disease

Over time, the consistent malnutrition that celiac disease causes can result in such dangerous complications as:

  • A loss of bone density (osteoporosis) or bone softening (osteomalacia)
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Some neurological diseases
  • Nervous system injuries, including balance problems and cognitive impairment
  • Certain cancers
  • Hyposplenism (reduced spleen functioning)

Who is at Risk of Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is hereditary. People with a first-degree relative with the condition, such as a parent, have a 10 percent chance of being diagnosed. It can develop at any age after one begins consuming foods or medicines containing gluten.

Unfortunately, due to the full range of symptoms associated with the disease, doctors believe that most patients never know that they have the condition, and as a result, suffer from slow damage to their small intestines over several years before symptoms or complications exacerbate.

Treatment for Celiac Disease

While there is currently no cure, medical or surgical treatments for celiac disease, many patients who eliminate gluten from their diet can eliminate its uncomfortable symptoms and minimize their risk of health complications. Those who remove gluten from their diet for at least a year with no improvement are often diagnosed with a form of celiac disease called refractory or nonresponsive celiac disease. Researchers are working diligently to identify alternative therapies and a cure to this dangerous autoimmune disease.

When to Get Help

If you are experiencing the symptoms of celiac disease, and notice a flare-up of complications after eating foods that contain gluten, particularly if you have diarrhea or digestive discomfort that lasts for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor. They can provide a thorough examination, assess your genetic history, and if they diagnose you with celiac disease, help you make the necessary dietary changes to suppress symptoms and avoid complications.