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Celiac Disease

What Is Celiac Disease?


Updated October 18, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Updated October 18, 2011
Approximately 2 million people in the US, or about 1 in 133, have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a disease of the digestive system. If you have celiac disease, and you eat foods that contain the protein gluten, your immune system will begin to destroy the villi in your small intestines. Celiac disease can also interfere with the absorption of nutrients by the small intestines.

Villi are minuscule finger-like protrusions that line the small intestines. If your villi are unhealthy, you may become malnourished no matter how much food you eat.

Other names you may hear used for celiac disease include nontropical sprue, celiac sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

Is Celiac Disease Inherited?

While celiac disease can run in families, not all cases are inherited. The first time celiac disease occurs is often following pregnancy, childbirth, post-surgery, a viral infection, or severe emotional stress.

What Are The Symptoms Of Celiac Disease?

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms when they have celiac disease. In fact, some people might not experience any symptoms. When they do occur, symptoms may be in the digestive system or in other parts of the body. Infants and young children experience digestive system symptoms more often than adults do. Irritability is frequently a symptom in children.

Other symptoms of celiac disease include:

Symptoms that are more likely than digestive symptoms to occur in adults include:

Those people who have no symptoms may still develop complications from celiac disease, such as:

  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Miscarriage
  • Liver diseases
  • Cancers of the intestines

You may wonder why the symptoms of celiac disease vary so much. This is the subject of much research. Three factors under consideration include how long you were breastfed, how old you were when you began consuming gluten-containing foods, and the amount of gluten-containing foods you have eaten. For instance, the thought is that the longer one is breastfed, the longer it takes before the symptoms of celiac disease appear.

Other factors that may play a role are how old you are and how much damage that has occurred in the small intestines. You could have celiac disease for 10 years or more before you receive a diagnosis. The fact is that the longer you go undiagnosed, the more likely you are to develop long-standing complications from celiac disease.

People who have celiac disease often develop immune system disorders that include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease
  • Autoimmune liver disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Addison's disease, a condition that we frequently associate with President John F. Kennedy and which causes damage to glands that produce important hormones
  • Sjogren's syndrome, which frequently causes dry eyes and dry mouth. This is due to the destruction of the glands that produce tears and saliva.


NICCID. Celiac Disease. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/index.aspx.

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