Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to overreact to gluten. In this overreaction, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this can cause damage to the lining of the gut, which can lead to a variety of symptoms, including foul-smelling diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue.
Celiac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide. It can affect people of all ages. Some children show signs of the disease early on, while others may not develop symptoms until later in life.
This article will explore how celiac disease develops later in life, symptoms, and how to diagnose and treat celiac disease.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains. It can be found at:
Gluten acts as a kind of glue that holds food together.
For people with celiac disease, gluten can be harmful. If someone with celiac disease ingests gluten, their body sees it as a threat and the immune system attacks. This in turn can damage the small intestine and cause health problems.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Celiac disease can present with more than 200 symptoms and is sometimes difficult to diagnose quickly and accurately.
People with celiac disease may experience different symptoms depending on how much gluten they eat and many other factors. Despite testing positive for celiac disease, some people with celiac disease may have no symptoms at all.
Children and adults often experience different symptoms. While children often experience digestive symptoms, adults are more likely to experience symptoms that are not related to the digestive system.
Possible symptoms include:
- itchy rash
- bone or joint pain
- mouth ulcers
- missed period
- repeated miscarriages
- Numbness or tingling in the feet or hands
Celiac disease affects women differently – here’s how
Can celiac disease develop later in life?
While some people are born with celiac disease or may develop the disease as children, others may not develop the disease until later in life. The reason for this is still unknown.
Some research suggests that people may have a genetic predisposition to developing celiac disease, but symptoms only develop if the diet contains enough gluten for a long enough period of time. Environmental factors and stress may also play a role in the development of the condition.
For example, many women begin to experience celiac disease symptoms after pregnancy and childbirth. Others develop symptoms after recovering from an unrelated illness or after a stressful period in their life.
What to Know About Celiac Disease and Pregnancy
There are many risk factors that can contribute to the development of celiac disease. Even without risk factors, it is still possible to develop celiac disease.
However, researchers believe that the more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to develop celiac disease.
Possible risk factors include:
- Genetics: Most people with celiac disease have one of two genes that predisposes them to the disease. About 95% of people with celiac disease have a gene called HLA-DQ2, and another 5% have a gene called HLA-DQ8. However, not everyone with one of these genes will go on to develop celiac disease. In fact, an estimated 35 percent of people in the U.S. carry one of these two genes, but most never develop celiac disease.
- Family history: Celiac disease usually runs in families. Those who have blood relatives with celiac disease also have an increased risk of developing celiac disease. As many as 5% to 10% of family members of people with celiac disease also have celiac disease.
- Medical Conditions: Several other medical conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing celiac disease. These include asthma, Turner syndrome (a genetic disorder that causes short stature, infertility and other health problems), type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome and hypothyroidism.
Is there a higher risk of heart disease when you have celiac disease?
How to Diagnose Celiac Disease
It is important to consult a healthcare provider to obtain a formal diagnosis of celiac disease.
The typical first step in reaching a diagnosis is a blood test. Those with celiac disease who consume gluten have high levels of specific antibodies in their blood. This is because the immune system produces these antibodies in response to what it considers gluten to be a threat.
If a blood test in the abdominal cavity is positive, your healthcare provider may order an endoscopic biopsy of the small bowel. During this procedure, a healthcare provider inserts a tiny tube with a camera and light into the mouth and down the throat into the small intestine. The camera will take an image of your small intestine.
The surgeon will also remove a small sample of tissue from the small intestine to look at under a microscope in the laboratory. This procedure is considered the gold standard for celiac disease diagnosis. This is usually done as an outpatient procedure and you will go home later in the day.
What to expect from your endoscopy to diagnose celiac disease
How to Treat Celiac Disease
Once you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, your healthcare provider will recommend that you start a gluten-free diet right away.
A strict gluten-free diet is the only known effective treatment for celiac disease, and once diagnosed, it must be followed for life.
Once a person with celiac disease begins following a strict gluten-free diet, most people’s symptoms improve significantly within a few days or weeks. Without exposure to gluten, damage to the small intestine can begin to heal. A gluten-free diet can also prevent more harm from happening.
In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help treat the rash associated with celiac disease. They may also prescribe supplements to address any vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may occur due to malabsorption of nutrients in the small intestine.
How to Find a Celiac Disease Dietitian or Dietitian
When to see a healthcare provider
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can present with a variety of symptoms, making it difficult to identify. Symptoms unrelated to gluten intake may occur.
Consider talking with your healthcare provider if you experience any changes in your digestion or symptoms.
If you have a blood relative with celiac disease, it is a good idea to have a blood test to see if you also tested positive for celiac disease, or if you are a carrier of the gene.
Are you at risk for celiac disease?Your genes will tell you
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can develop at any age. While it’s unclear what causes symptoms to develop, researchers believe a variety of factors may be at play. These risk factors include genetics, family history of disease, and environmental factors.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can occur at any age. Some people may develop the disease in childhood, while others may not develop it until adulthood or even later life.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you or a loved one develops symptoms that you suspect may be caused by celiac disease. It is important to correctly diagnose celiac disease, and if so, start a gluten-free diet as soon as possible.
Fortunately, celiac disease can be well managed on a gluten-free diet, and most people are able to completely resolve their symptoms and return to health within a few weeks to a few months.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I eat with celiac disease?
People with celiac disease should not consume any food or drink that contains gluten. Naturally gluten-free foods include fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and some grains such as rice, oats, and millet. There are also many packaged gluten-free alternatives for foods like pizza and pasta.
How to lose weight with celiac disease?
There is no evidence that eliminating gluten from the diet helps with weight loss. Those on a gluten-free diet may eat more whole foods and, in turn, may eat fewer calories. But not all gluten-free foods are healthy or low-calorie.
Both diet and exercise play a role in weight loss. Eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising is the first step to losing weight.
How serious is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease. It can cause damage to the small intestine and, if left undiagnosed or treated, can lead to long-term health complications such as anemia, infertility and heart disease.
People with celiac disease have twice the risk of coronary artery disease and four times the risk of small bowel cancer.