Celiac Disease: Symptoms, Complications, and Treatment

Published December 2nd, 2020 by Dr. Kaylea Swearingen, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

Freshly baked bread.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  Macaroni and cheese.  Funfetti birthday cake. Chocolate chip cookies.

What do all of these things have in common – other than making you suddenly very hungry?  These are examples of foods that contain gluten.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.  Gluten acts like glue by helping foods stick together and maintain their shape. 

Gluten is a trigger for someone who has celiac disease.  Check out below to learn more about celiac disease, symptoms, and treatment options.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that causes damage to the small intestine.  Triggered by eating foods containing gluten, celiac disease can cause long-term digestive problems and keep you from getting the nutrients your body needs.  Some products that contain gluten include:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Lip balms/lipsticks
  • Hair and skin products
  • Toothpaste
  • Vitamins
  • Medications (rarely)

Celiac disease is different from gluten intolerance or sensitivity.  Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity symptoms may be similar, but gluten sensitivity does not damage the small intestine, as seen in celiac disease.

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How Common is Celiac Disease?

An estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide are affected by celiac disease.  Because celiac disease is hereditary, someone with a first-degree relative with celiac disease has a 1 in 10 chance of developing it themselves.

The development of new celiac disease cases has been on the rise since the end of the 20th century.  Females and children are the most affected by celiac disease.

What are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease affects people differently, which is why there are over 200 known celiac disease symptoms.  The development of celiac disease can occur during childhood or adulthood.  Children most commonly experience digestive symptoms, while only about one-third of adults experience diarrhea.  The most common symptoms found in children versus adults include:

Children

Adults

• Abdominal bloating/pain

• Chronic diarrhea

• Constipation

• Vomiting

• Weight loss

• Fatigue

• Anemia

• Pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stool

• Irritability, behavioral issues, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

• Delayed growth or puberty

• Fatigue

• Bone or joint pain, arthritis

• Liver and biliary tract disorders

• Anemia

• Depression or anxiety

• Peripheral neuropathy

• Seizures

• Migraines

• Infertility or recurrent miscarriage

• Canker sores

• Itchy skin rash


If you are experiencing any unexplained symptoms or have a family member with celiac disease, the Celiac Disease Foundation has a symptoms assessment tool to see if you have an increased risk of celiac disease.

Long Term Complications of Celiac Disease

Someone with celiac disease can have a two times higher risk of developing coronary artery disease and four times higher risk of developing small bowel cancers. 

It is estimated that about 80% of the celiac disease population is undiagnosed.  Untreated celiac disease can lead to the development of:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Itchy skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Anemia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Neurological conditions
  • Heart disease
  • Intestinal cancers

What Treatment is Available for Celiac Disease?

Currently, doctors use a gluten-free diet to treat celiac disease.  Your doctor may recommend meeting with a dietitian to help teach you how to avoid gluten by:

  • Checking food labels for gluten
  • Meal planning
  • Making healthy choices about the types of foods to eat

Recently, gluten-free products or gluten-free options have become more readily available at grocery stores and restaurants.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a rule that defines “gluten-free” for food labeling.  The rule requires that any food using the terms “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “without gluten” on the label must meet all of the definition’s requirements.

Following a gluten-free diet will allow for symptom improvement, heal small intestine damage, and prevent additional damage.  In children, the small intestine can heal within three to six months.  For adults, complete healing of the small intestine may take several years.

The Bottom Line

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that, when triggered by gluten, causes damage to the small intestine.

There are over 200 known symptoms of celiac disease.  Which symptoms a person develops vary and frequently depend on when the disease develops. For example, children tend to present with digestive symptoms, while only about one-third of adults experience diarrhea.

Currently, the only treatment option for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. To learn more about celiac disease, check out the Celiac Disease Foundation. For questions or concerns about celiac disease or a gluten-free diet, contact your primary healthcare provider.

References:

Definition & Facts for Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/definition-facts. Updated June 2016. Accessed October 7, 2020.

What is Celiac Disease? Celiac Disease Foundation website. https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/. Accessed October 7, 2020.

King JA, Jeong J, Underwood FE, Quan J, Panaccione N, Windsor JW, Coward S, deBruyn J, Ronksley PE, Shaheen AA, Quan H, Godley J, Veldhuyzen van Zanten S, Lebwohl B, Ng SC, Ludvigsson JF, Kaplan GG. Incidence of Celiac Disease Is Increasing Over Time: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2020 Apr;115(4):507-525. doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000000523. PMID: 32022718.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease Foundation website. https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/symptoms-of-celiac-disease/. Accessed October 7, 2020.

Symptom Assessment Tool. Celiac Disease Foundation website. https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/symptoms-assessment-tool/. Accessed October 7, 2020.

Treatment for Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/treatment. Updated June 2016. Accessed October 7, 2020.

Gluten and Food Labeling. U.S. Food & Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/gluten-and-food-labeling. Updated July 16, 2018. Accessed October 7, 2020.

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