What is coeliac disease?
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages from middle infancy onwards. The disease is caused by an inappropriate immune response to dietary gluten protein storage proteins in genetically susceptible individuals. Gluten causes damage to the lining of the small intestine leading to coeliac disease symptoms.
Gluten is a protein found in foods that come from wheat, rye, and barley. It can also be found in some other everyday products such as medicines, vitamins, lip balms, and door seals.
A blood test is available for coeliac disease which detects antibodies present when the coeliac disease is present. If coeliac disease is suspected then it will be confirmed with this coeliac test. A coeliac test looks for these antibodies (tTG-IgA, EMA-IgA).
If coeliac blood tests are positive in the presence of coeliac symptoms then the coeliac disease is likely. The coeliac disease will be confirmed by a gastroenterologist performing additional coeliac-specific blood tests and coeliac biopsy to check for coeliac disease. A coeliac test can further help to confirm whether the coeliac disease is present or not.
Symptoms of coeliac disease
Coeliac symptoms can include gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and distension, steatorrhoea (pale greasy stool), weight loss, failure to thrive in children, fatigue, and anemia. Coeliac disease may also present with neurological coeliac symptoms such as headache and ataxia (balance and coordination problems), dental enamel defects, dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash that is a sign of coeliac disease), depression or anxiety, joint pain, osteoporosis, menstrual disorders, infertility or increased risk of miscarriage in women, seizures or epilepsy.
Symptoms of coeliac disease may be so mild that some people have coeliac symptoms for years before being diagnosed. Others have no coeliac symptoms at all but have coeliac disease discovered during screening tests such as the coeliac blood test for inflammation markers done by GPs. Coeliac disease symptoms in these cases are often diagnosed following coeliac tests done for coeliac symptoms unrelated to coeliac disease.
Coeliac symptoms can be similar to coeliac disease symptoms caused by other conditions, but coeliac symptoms tend to improve when on a gluten-free diet. This is not the case with coeliac disease which only improves on a gluten-free diet.
People with coeliac disease need to maintain a strict lifelong gluten-free diet as it is the only current treatment for coeliac disease. The gluten-free diet does not cure the coeliac disease but eating foods with gluten will make it worse and eventually damage the small intestine again causing coeliac symptoms.
Coeliac symptoms co-occurring with other coeliac symptoms and coeliac disease coexisting with other conditions should be assessed by a coeliac specialist.
This article contains general medical information, and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem, condition, or illness without consulting a qualified healthcare professional.