What exactly is celiac disease?

First_aid_smStudies suggest that approximately one in every 100 Americans have celiac disease, yet 97 percent of them go undiagnosed.

But what exactly is this increasingly common disease?

Celiac disease, sometimes referred to as gluten-sensitive enteropathy or celiac sprue, is a hereditary autoimmune disease that results from an abnormal response to eating gluten.

Gluten is a type of protein that is found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. In people with celiac disease, the body sees gluten as an enemy and responds by attacking, or inflaming, the very parts of the small intestine necessary for absorbing nutrients.

Classic and non-classic gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms of celiac disease can be very uncomfortable and include:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramps
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting

Dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy skin condition, is another presentation of celiac disease. Then there’s silent celiac where people do not experience any clear symptoms.

Following a strict life-long gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Eliminating gluten allows the intestine to heal and helps prevent complications that may result from untreated celiac disease. Regardless of whether or not you experience symptoms when you eat gluten, you must permanently eliminate gluten from your diet. This point cannot be over emphasized.

Most of the long-term complications of untreated celiac disease result from nutrient deficiencies secondary to malabsorption and inflammation. These include but are not limited to osteoporosis, short stature, multiple types of anemia, various neuropathies, infertility, and fetal abnormalities. In addition, untreated celiac disease can increase your risk of developing lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue, as well as other types of cancer.

What should you do if you think you might have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance?

The short answer is, visit your doctor! The gold standard for diagnosing celiac disease is an intestinal biopsy through an endoscopic procedure. A panel of very specific and sensitive blood tests is first conducted to determine whether a person needs an intestinal biopsy.

However, someone can have a negative blood panel and still have celiac disease. Physicians must use their clinical judgment to determine if an intestinal biopsy is necessary in the absence of a positive blood test. Genetic testing is available to rule out celiac disease but not to diagnose it. Under no circumstances should celiac disease be self-diagnosed!

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