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Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease

More than 2 million people in America have celiac disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine.

Celiac disease affects people of all ages, genders and races, and it can be hereditary. Those suffering from the disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in:

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Some oats

When people with celiac disease consume gluten, their immune systems attack the small intestine and damage the inner lining which is used to absorb nutrients from food. Because the body is not absorbing nutrients, people with celiac disease can suffer from malnutrition and other health complications.

UPMC offers its patients multidisciplinary care for celiac disease. Our dietitians are some of the finest in the country and work with our gastroenterologists to help decrease our patients’ symptoms.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person. Some people with celiac disease experience no symptoms at all. However, the most common symptoms among children and adults are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Infants and young children with celiac disease are more likely to have digestive symptoms but can also suffer from the following:

  • Irritability
  • Stunted growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Dental enamel defects of the permanent teeth

Adults are also susceptible to digestive symptoms, but more commonly suffer from one or more of the following:

  • Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Arthritis
  • Bone loss or osteoporosis
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Tingling numbness in hands and feet
  • Seizures
  • Canker sores inside the mouth
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy skin rash

Diagnosing Celiac Disease

If a patient is experiencing symptoms of celiac disease, a doctor will administer tests and procedures to diagnose the disease:

  • Blood tests measure certain antibodies produced by the immune system
  • Genetic tests do not prove diagnosis but will show if the patient is not suffering from celiac disease
  • A biopsy taken during an endoscopy, when a small tube is guided down the patient’s throat to their small intestine, can confirm celiac disease after antibodies have been found. It can also detect celiac disease when the patient is being tested for another condition.

Treating Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is chronic and there is no known cure. People living with celiac disease must consume a gluten-free diet in order to eliminate symptoms.

Gluten is sometimes hidden in processed foods so those with celiac disease are advised to always check nutrition labels and ingredients. However, a person should not begin a gluten-free diet without being diagnosed.

In addition, celiac disease should not be confused with a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance.

Celiac Disease in Children

Breastfeeding can prevent celiac disease by 50% by introducing small amounts of gluten to a baby. If your child is diagnosed with celiac disease, UPMC experts at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh are available to provide a full continuum of care.