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How Do You Know if You Have Celiac Disease?

By DuPage Medical Group Gastroenterology

Celiac disease is a condition in which your body reacts after exposure to a particular component of grains, called gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If you have Celiac disease and you eat gluten, your immune system reacts as if the gluten were an infection and launches an attacks on your intestines. This results in intestinal inflammation, damage and loss of ability of your intestines to absorb certain nutrients. The main symptoms you will notice are intense discomfort and diarrhea.

The resulting symptoms from malabsorption may include:

  • Abdominal bloating and discomfort
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Osteoporosis
  • Menstrual or fertility issues

If you have Celiac disease, it is common to also suffer from diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, and a blistering rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. Though the cause of Celiac disease is unknown, there is clearly a genetic component. Celiac disease occurs primarily in Caucasians of North European ancestry. However, what triggers the sustained abnormal response to gluten is still unknown.

Since Celiac disease can present with a wide range of symptoms and mimic other conditions, it remains under-diagnosed. In a person with chronic unexplained abdominal symptoms, iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and especially those with diabetes, thyroid disease, or other "autoimmune" diseases, blood tests can be ordered. These tests are very helpful in making a diagnosis of celiac disease. To confirm the diagnosis, one must take biopsies of the small intestine performed in an upper endoscopy procedure.

Treatment involves eliminating gluten from your diet. Most patients notice a significant improvement in their symptoms within several weeks. Unfortunately, gluten is common in many processed foods and the diet can be challenging, especially for adolescents. Fortunately, with the increased recognition of this disease, most major grocery food chains are carrying gluten-free options. Support groups also provide a wealth of information and assistance. Consulting with a registered dietitian is also highly recommended.

Most patients respond well to a gluten-free diet and lead normal lives as long as the diet is strictly followed. Follow-up testing may include repeating an endoscopy to ensure the intestinal lining has healed, blood tests to monitor vitamin levels and anemia, and special bone testing (DEXA scan) to ensure bone loss is not developing.

If you feel you may have symptoms matching those above, talk to your primary care physician or schedule an appointment with a member of our Gastroenterology team.

For more information, please visit the following websites:

Topics and Subtopics: Digestive Disorders

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