Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the digestive tract. In celiac disease, eating food with gluten damages little bulges in the small intestine. These bulges, called villi, absorb nutrients from foods. The condition affects the absorption of all nutrients. Untreated patients often become malnourished.

  • Causes

    Doctors do not fully understand what causes celiac disease. Eating gluten seems to be involved. There is most likely a genetic factor. Patients with specific genes develop the disease after exposure to gluten. There is some evidence that earlier exposure in infancy can cause a more severe disease than later exposure.

  • Definition

    Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the digestive tract. In celiac disease, eating food with gluten damages little bulges in the small intestine. These bulges, called villi, absorb nutrients from foods. The condition affects the absorption of all nutrients. Untreated patients often become malnourished.

    Cross Section of Small Intestine
    small intestine villi
    Inner circle demonstrates little protrusions affected by Celiac disease.
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

  • Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Blood tests may be done to look for malnutrition or anemia. Celiac disease may be suspected based on symptoms and related conditions. However, the symptoms are common to several other conditions. Other tests will help to confirm celiac disease including:

    • Bowel biopsy—a sample of tissue removed for testing to look for cell level changes.
    • Endoscopy—to allow your doctor to examine your intestines.

  • Prevention

    There are no guidelines for preventing celiac disease because the cause is not understood. If celiac disease runs in your family, ask your doctor about a screening test. The earlier you start the gluten-free diet, the less damage there will be to the intestine.

  • Risk Factors


    Risk factors that increase your chance of having celiac disease include:

    • Family members with celiac disease

    • History of another autoimmune disease, such as:

      • Type 1 diabetes
      • Autoimmune thyroid disease
      • Lupus
    • Dermatitis herpetiformis—A skin condition associated with celiac disease
    • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Symptoms

    Symptoms vary and may start in childhood or adulthood. Children often have different symptoms than adults. Symptoms may not develop if a large section of the intestine is undamaged. Malnutrition may produce the first signs of the condition, which are often the most serious.

    Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Treatment


    A life-long,
    gluten-free diet
    is the only treatment for celiac disease. It is very effective. Symptoms usually go away within days of starting the diet. However, healing of the villi may take months or years. Additional intake of gluten can damage the intestine, even if you have no symptoms. Delayed growth and tooth discoloration may be permanent. Nutritional supplements, given through a vein, may be needed if the intestinal damage does not heal. Since gluten is added to many foods, the diet can be complicated and often frustrating. Some patients find support groups helpful.