Celiac risk is higher if close family member has the disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by ingesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In people with celiac disease, the immune system responds to gluten as something foreign and begins to attack the villi, which are tiny, finger-like formations that line the small intestine and help with nutrient absorption. Damage to the villi affects the body's ability to absorb nutrients.

While there are likely some environmental factors that contribute to celiac disease, it is primarily a genetic disease. If you have a close relative, for example, such as a parent, sibling or child who has celiac, you have a one in 10 risk of developing the disease yourself.

Symptoms and diagnosis of celiac disease

There are more than 200 known symptoms of celiac disease, which makes it difficult for doctors to diagnose since the condition often mimics so many other conditions with similar symptoms. Some of the most commonly recognized symptoms include:

  • Gas, bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss

While symptoms of celiac may be mild, the disease can progress and without treatment may lead to long-term health problems, such as early onset osteoporosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and nervous system disorders, such as epileptic seizures, dementia, myopathy and neuropathy.

If your doctor suspects celiac disease, he or she may prescribe a blood test that screens for certain antibodies (immune defense molecules) that react to gluten as a threat. In order for the test to be accurate, you must be on a diet that includes gluten. Further testing may include endoscopic biopsy of the small intestine.

Treatment for celiac disease is lifetime avoidance of all foods containing gluten, as well as beverages such as beer or ale.

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