Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(11):1921-1922

What is celiac disease?

Celiac (SEAL-ee-ack) disease causes problems in your intestines when you eat gluten, which is in wheat, rye, barley, and oats.

What does gluten do to people with celiac disease?

If you have celiac disease, gluten damages your intestines and keeps your body from taking in many of the nutrients in the food you eat. This includes vitamins, calcium, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and other important nutrients. Your body can’t work well without these nutrients.

Who gets celiac disease?

Celiac disease runs in families. If one person in your family has celiac disease, about one out of 10 other members of your family is likely to have it.

People with a skin problem called dermatitis herpetiformis (derm-uh-TITE-iss her-PET-uh-for-miss) often have celiac disease.

What happens to children with celiac disease?

If you have celiac disease, you may not have symptoms for awhile. Then something like stress, a physical injury, an infection, childbirth, or surgery can “turn on” the disease.

Celiac disease can cause different problems at different times:

  • Infants with celiac disease may have stomach pain and diarrhea. They may not grow well or gain enough weight.

  • Young children may have stomach pain and nausea and may not eat as much as usual. They may not have enough iron in the blood, and they might get mouth sores or a skin rash.

  • Children may be irritable or “clingy.” They might not want to do things they usually enjoy.

  • In later stages of the disease, children may become malnourished. This happens when the body does not get enough nutrients over a long time. Malnourished children often have a large tummy, thin thigh muscles, and flat buttocks.

  • Teenagers may hit puberty late and be short. Celiac disease might cause some hair loss.

What happens to adults with celiac disease?

Adults with celiac disease might have a general feeling of poor health. They might be tired, irritable, or depressed, even if they have few intestinal problems. One serious illness that often occurs is osteoporosis (oss-tee-oh-pour-OH-sis), which happens when calcium is lost from the bones. About one in 20 adults with celiac disease has anemia. Lactose intolerance (trouble digesting dairy foods) is common in patients of all ages with celiac disease. It usually disappears when they follow a gluten-free diet.

How can I control celiac disease?

Celiac disease is serious. But you can control it by not eating any gluten. By following the right diet, you can fix the damage caused by celiac disease. But if you cheat on your diet, the damage will come back, even if you don’t feel sick right away.

You will have to explain your problem and the gluten-free diet to your family and ask for their help. It will take time for you and your family to learn how to avoid gluten in your diet.

How can I be sure I have celiac disease?

Your doctor can do a blood test to see if you have celiac disease. This test must be done before you start a gluten-free diet. The best confirmation, though, is if your symptoms go away when you follow a gluten-free diet.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

Celiac Disease Foundation

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