What is Celiac Disease?

People with celiac disease (pronounced see-liac) have an immune reaction when they eat any food containing gluten. Their body identifies gluten as an intruder and starts to produce antibodies to protect them. This means that their immune system attacks their own bodies and starts to damage the lining of the small intestine as well as other areas of the body – this is called an autoimmune disease.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye and any products using these ingredients such as bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits, sauces. There are many grains which naturally do not contain gluten and their flour can be used to make a range of gluten-free breads and cakes.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of coeliac disease vary from person to person and may include:

•    diarrhoea, excessive wind, and/or constipation
•    persistent or unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting
•    recurrent stomach pain, cramping or bloating
•    any combination of iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency
•    tiredness and/or headaches
•    weight loss (but not in all cases)
•    mouth ulcers
•    hair loss (alopecia)
•    skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis (DH))
•    tooth enamel problems
•    osteoporosis
•    depression
•    infertility
•    repeated miscarriages
•    joint and/or bone pain
•    neurological (nerve) problems such as ataxia (poor muscle co-ordination) and neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the hands and feet).

What about children?

In babies, symptoms may develop after weaning onto cereals which contain gluten.

Other symptoms in young children include:
•    muscle wasting in the arms and legs
•    bloated tummy
•    irritability
•    failure to gain weight or lose weight after previously growing well

Symptoms in older children vary as they do in adults.

Common confusion

Some symptoms may be mistaken as Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or wheat intolerance. Stress or getting older can also be a cause of confusion.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be underweight or have lost weight to have coeliac disease. Most people are of normal weight or even overweight at diagnosis.

What should I do if I think I have celiac disease?

If you think you or your child has celiac disease, you must speak to your doctor for advice. You can also approach the celiac society in your country, which may be able to give you advice on first steps to take and how to maintain a gluten-free diet. See our list of member countries.

Managing a gluten-free diet

Eating a gluten-free diet can be easier than you think as many staple foods are naturally gluten-free such as meat, fish vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, rice, corn, potatoes and beans

Due to the increased risk of osteoporosis it is important to regularly consume calcium-containing food, such as milk and cheese. A daily intake of 1500mg is recommended for adults suffering from celiac disease.