Celiac Disease

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease, which comes from the Greek word for “abdominal,” is a lifelong intolerance to gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and also in oats that have been contaminated with gluten from other products. In people with celiac disease, gluten damages the lining of the intestines. This can prevent them from absorbing nutrients and cause a variety of other symptoms.

When food enters the stomach, it’s broken down into tiny digestible particles, which then travel through the small intestine. The small intestine is lined with villi — tiny finger-like projections that absorb nutrients from the food passing through. In celiac disease, gluten damages the intestine and causes the villi to break down, leaving a smooth lining that can no longer absorb nutrients.

Celiac disease is far from uncommon. An estimated 1 in 133 people in the U.S. are affected by the condition — typically more girls than boys — and many are undiagnosed.

As you build up your knowledge, living with celiac disease usually gets a lot easier with time. There is no “cure,” but lifelong avoidance of gluten is an effective treatment.

5 things to know about celiac disease

What are the symptoms of celiac disease in children?

The symptoms of celiac disease can be very different from child to child and also dependent on age. The classic symptoms that are prevalent in children under the age of 3 include:

  • abdominal pain and/or cramps
  • abdominal distension (bloating)
  • diarrhea (loose stools)
  • constipation (hard stools)
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • decreased appetite
  • increased fatigue
  • weight loss or poor weight gain
  • short stature or poor growth
  • frequent mouth ulcers

Now that there are blood tests that can help establish a celiac disease diagnosis, and doctors are becoming increasingly familiar with atypical signs and symptoms, celiac disease is also increasingly being diagnosed in older children — in fact, the average age of diagnosis is currently around 9 years old.

These signs and symptoms of celiac disease in children include:

  • delayed puberty
  • behavioral problems
  • iron deficiency
  • osteopenia/osteoporosis
  • hepatitis
  • arthritis
  • infertility
  • migraines
  • seizures
  • neuropathy

What causes celiac disease in children?

Doctors haven’t yet figured out exactly how someone develops celiac disease. We do know that children with celiac disease always inherit one particular gene from a parent that makes them susceptible to the disease. But since many people have that gene but never develop celiac disease, it’s likely that other genes play a part, too.

Some researchers believe that celiac disease may be triggered by the combination of:

  • having the gene(s) that make you susceptible
  • exposure to gluten
  • exposure to a toxin or an infection (such as a rotavirus)

How we care for celiac disease

The experts in our Celiac Disease Program are some of the best in the country when it comes to diagnosing and helping families manage celiac disease with a gluten-free lifestyle. We also have a vibrant and active support group, Celiac Kids Connection, with more than 350 member families.