The lining of the intestines contains areas called villi, which help absorb nutrients. When people with celiac disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), eat foods or use products that contain gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats), their immune system reacts by damaging these villi. This damage affects the body's ability to absorb nutrients properly. Someone with celiac may become malnourished, no matter how much food he or she eats. The disease can develop at any point in life, from infancy to late adulthood.
The symptoms of celiac disease can be different for each person, which makes diagnosing celiac disease very complicated. They may include:
- Abdominal pain, bloating, gas, or indigestion
- Changes in appetite
- Lactose intolerance
- Diarrhea, constipation, fatty or foul-smelling stools, nausea, or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss (although people can be overweight or of normal weight)
Because the intestines do not absorb enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, the following symptoms of malnutrition may appear over time:
- Bruising easily
- Depression or anxiety
- Hair loss
- Itchy skin
- Missed menstrual periods
Children with celiac disease may have:
- Defects in the tooth enamel and changes in tooth color
- Delayed puberty
- Diarrhea, constipation, fatty or foul-smelling stools, nausea or vomiting
- Irritable and fussy behavior
- Poor weight gain
- Slowed growth and shorter-than-normal height for their age
Blood tests can detect several celiac disease antibodies; if they are positive, upper endoscopy is usually performed to sample a piece of tissue from the first part of the small intestine, or duodenum. The biopsy may show a flattening of the villi in the parts of the intestine below the duodenum.
PLEASE NOTE: Beginning a gluten-free diet before official diagnosis can affect testing for the disease.
Celiac disease cannot be cured. However, symptoms will go away and the villi in the lining of the intestines will heal with a lifelong gluten-free diet—this eliminates consumption of foods, beverages, or medications that contain wheat, barley, rye or, possibly, oats.