Celiac Disease: A Closer Look at Causes, Symptoms and When to Seek Help

celiac disease

For many people, eating gluten can cause bloating, diarrhea, constipation, stomachaches and other symptoms. Some people have a gluten intolerance, which can cause problems in the digestive system but not permanent damage to your organs. Others, however, have similar symptoms but will experience organ damage if they consume gluten. This is a condition called celiac disease, and approximately 2 million Americans suffer from it.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine when gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is ingested. Celiac disease triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine, leading to long-term health complications. If left untreated, this condition can result in malabsorption, nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, skin changes and rarely malignancy.

What causes celiac disease?

The exact cause of celiac disease is still unknown, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors seems to play a role. Individuals with a family history of celiac disease are more susceptible to having it as well. People with first- and second-degree relatives, with a diagnosis of Type I diabetes and those who have autoimmune disorders are at greater risk.

“There is also research that shows being introduced to gluten in early childhood may increase the risk of developing celiac disease as well as experiencing certain digestive tract infections,” said Kathleen Schwegler, PA-C, a certified physician assistant with Penn Highlands Gastroenterology.

Who is at a greater risk?

Anyone can develop celiac disease, but you may be at a higher risk if you:

  • Have a family member who has the disease
  • Have Down syndrome, Turner syndrome or Williams syndrome
  • Are white
  • Are female

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

“Celiac disease manifests in a diverse range of symptoms, making it challenging to diagnose,” said Kathleen. “Some people experience digestive symptoms, while others experience symptoms affecting other parts of the body.”

Digestive symptoms may include:

  • Bloating (fullness or swelling in your stomach)
  • Chronic diarrhea or greasy, bulky, unusually bad-smelling stool
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Weight loss in adults or not enough weight gain in children

Other symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Irritability (in children)
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy rash with blisters seen mainly in adults)
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Symptoms involving the mouth, such as canker sores or dry mouth

When should you see a doctor?

If you suspect you may have celiac disease or are experiencing persistent symptoms, consult with your doctor. To make a diagnosis, your doctor may perform a combination of blood tests, genetic testing and a biopsy of the small intestine. Early diagnosis and intervention of this autoimmune disorder can prevent long-term complications by making lifestyle changes, following a gluten-free diet, and taking vitamins and dietary supplements to counter any deficiencies.

How is celiac disease treated?

If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, your provider will likely recommend that you follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life. This type of diet will help treat or prevent many of the symptoms and other health problems caused by the disease. Your provider may also provide medication to treat or prevent dermatitis herpetiformis, corticosteroids for severe inflammation that is not responding fast enough to the diet, and nutritional supplements to replace any serious deficiencies.

The physicians at Penn Highlands Gastroenterology Services specialize in diagnosing and treating celiac disease as well as other diseases of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and liver. The team of digestive health specialists also provide routine care, including colonoscopies to check for colorectal cancer, and treatment for the most complex GI issues such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. To learn more, visit www.phhealthcare.org/gi.