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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Feature:
Celiac Disease

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an immune disorder in which people can't eat gluten because it will damage their small intestine. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten may also be used in products such as vitamin and nutrient supplements, lip balms, and some medicines.

Your body's natural defense system—called the immune system—keeps you healthy by fighting against things that can make you sick, such as bacteria and viruses. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their body's immune system reacts to the gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. The immune system's reaction to gluten damages small, fingerlike growths called villi. When the villi are damaged, the body cannot get the nutrients it needs.

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning it runs in families. Adults and children can have celiac disease. As many as 2 million Americans may have celiac disease, but most don't know it.

Celiac disease can be very serious. It often causes long-lasting digestive problems and keeps your body from getting all the nutrition it needs. Over time, celiac disease can cause anemia, infertility, weak and brittle bones, an itchy skin rash, and other health problems.

Fast Facts

  • Celiac disease is an immune disorder in which people can't eat gluten or use items with gluten in them.
  • Celiac disease harms the small intestine.
  • People with untreated celiac disease can't get needed nutrients.
  • Without treatment, people with celiac disease can develop other health problems.
  • Celiac disease is diagnosed by blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine.
  • The only treatment for celiac disease is to avoid gluten.
  • A dietitian can help people choose the right foods.

How common is celiac disease?

Celiac disease affects people in all parts of the world. Originally thought to be a rare childhood syndrome, celiac disease is now known to be a common genetic disorder. More than 2 million people in the United States have the disease, or about 1 in 133 people. Among people who have a first-degree relative—a parent, sibling, or child—diagnosed with celiac disease, as many as 1 in 22 people may have the disease.

Celiac disease is also more common among people with other genetic disorders including Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, a condition that affects girls' development.

What other health problems do people with celiac disease have?

People with celiac disease tend to have other diseases in which the immune system attacks the body's healthy cells and tissues. The connection between celiac disease and these diseases may be genetic. They include:

  • type 1 diabetes
  • autoimmune thyroid disease
  • autoimmune liver disease
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • Addison's disease, a condition in which the glands that produce critical hormones are damaged
  • Sjögren's syndrome, a condition in which the glands that produce tears and saliva are destroyed

Spring 2015 Issue: Volume 10 Number 1 Page 3