Celiac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.
The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown. The lining of the intestines contains areas called villi, which help absorb nutrients. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that contain gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging these villi.
This damage affects the ability to absorb nutrients properly. A person becomes malnourished, no matter how much food he or she eats.
The disease can develop at any point in life, from infancy to late adulthood.
People who have a family member with celiac disease are at greater risk for developing the disease. The disorder is most common in Caucasians and persons of European ancestry. Women are affected more often than men.
People with celiac disease are more likely to have:
The symptoms of celiac disease can be different from person to person. This is part of the reason why the diagnosis is not always made right away. For example, one person may have constipation, a second may have diarrhea, and a third may have no problem with stools.
Blood tests can detect several special antibodies, called antitissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTGA) or anti-endomysium antibodies (EMA). The health care provider will order these antibody tests if celiac disease is suspected.
If the tests are positive, upper endoscopy is usually performed to sample a piece of tissue (biopsy) from the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). The biopsy may show a flattening of the villi in the parts of the intestine below the duodenum.
Genetic testing of the blood is also available to help determine who may be at risk for celiac disease.
A follow-up biopsy or blood test may be ordered several months after the diagnosis and treatment. These tests evaluate your response to treatment. Normal results mean that you have responded to treatment, which confirms the diagnosis. However, this does not mean that the disease has been cured.
Celiac disease cannot be cured. However, your symptoms will go away and the villi in the lining of the intestines will heal if you follow a lifelong gluten-free diet. Do not eat foods, beverages, and medications that contain wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.
You must read food and medication labels carefully to look for hidden sources of these grains and ingredients related to them. Because wheat and barley grains are common in the American diet, sticking with this diet is challenging. With education and planning, you will heal.
You should NOT begin the gluten-free diet before you are diagnosed. Starting the diet will affect testing for the disease.
The health care provider may prescribe vitamin and mineral supplements to correct nutritional deficiencies. Occasionally, corticosteroids (such as prednisone) may also be prescribed for short-term use or if you have sprue that does not respond to treatment. Following a well-balanced, gluten-free diet is generally the only treatment you need to stay well.
When you are diagnosed, get help from a registered dietitian who specializes in celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. A support group may also help you cope with the disease and diet.
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of celiac disease.
Because the exact cause is unknown, there is no known way to prevent the development of celiac disease. However, being aware of the risk factors (such as having a family member with the disorder) may increase your chances of early diagnosis, treatment, and a long, healthy life.
Green PH, Cellier C. Celiac disease. N Engl J Med. 2007;357:1731-1743.
Semrad CE, Powell DW. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 143.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.