Can You Become Gluten-Intolerant Later in Life?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to overreact to gluten. In this overreaction, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this causes damage to the intestinal lining that can result in a wide range of symptoms, including smelly diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue.

Celiac disease impacts approximately 1 in every 100 people around the world. It can affect people of all ages. Some children show signs of the disease early on, while other people may not develop symptoms until late in life.

This article will explore how celiac disease may develop later on in life, the symptoms of the condition, and how celiac disease is diagnosed and treated.

Celiac disease

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What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a form of protein found in some grains. It can be found in:

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley

Gluten acts as a kind of glue that binds foods together.

For people with celiac disease, gluten is harmful. If a person with celiac disease ingests gluten, their body sees it as a threat and the immune system launches an attack. This in turn can damage the small intestine and lead to health problems.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease can present with more than 200 symptoms, which can sometimes make it difficult to quickly and accurately diagnose.

People with celiac disease may experience different symptoms, depending on how much gluten they're eating and a number of other factors. Some people with celiac disease may not have any symptoms at all, despite testing positive for Celiac disease.

Children and adults often experience different symptoms. While children will commonly experience digestive symptoms, adults are more likely to experience symptoms unrelated to their digestive system.

Possible symptoms include:

Can Celiac Develop Later in Life?

While some people are born with celiac or may develop the condition as a child, other people may not develop the disease until later in life. The reason for this remains unknown.

Some research suggests that people may have a genetic predisposition to celiac disease but the symptoms only develop when there is sufficient gluten in the diet for a long enough period of time. Environmental factors and stress may also play a role in the development of the condition.

For instance, many women begin to experience celiac symptoms following pregnancy and birth. Other people develop symptoms after recovering from an unrelated illness—or following a stressful time in their life.

Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that may contribute to the development of celiac disease. It is still possible to develop the celiac disease even without risk factors.

However, researchers believe the more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to develop celiac disease.

Possible risk factors include:

  • Genetics: The majority of people with celiac disease have one of two genes that predispose them to developing the condition. Roughly 95% of people with celiac disease have a gene called HLA-DQ2, and the other 5% have a gene called HLA-DQ8. However, not everyone with one of these genes will go on to develop celiac disease. In fact, an estimated 35% of people in the United States are carriers of one of these two genes, yet most never develop celiac disease.
  • Family history: Celiac disease typically runs in families. Those with a blood relative who has celiac disease have an increased risk of also developing celiac disease. Up to 5% to 10% of family members of a person with celiac disease will also have celiac disease.
  • Medical conditions: Some other medical conditions have been linked to an increased risk of developing celiac disease. These include asthma, Turner syndrome (a genetic condition that causes short stature, infertility, and other health issues), type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, and hypothyroidism.

How Celiac Disease Is Diagnosed

It is important to consult with a healthcare provider to reach a formal diagnosis of celiac disease.

The typical first step to reaching a diagnosis is a blood test. Those who have celiac disease but who ingest gluten will have high levels of specific antibodies in their blood. This is because the immune system produces these antibodies in response to the gluten it views as a threat.

If the result of a celiac blood test comes back positive, your healthcare provider may order an endoscopic biopsy of the small intestine. During this procedure, a healthcare provider will insert a small, thin tube equipped with a camera and light into the mouth and down your throat into the small intestine. The camera will take images of your small intestine.

The surgeon will also remove a small sample of tissue from the small intestine, to be looked at under a microscope in a lab. This procedure is considered the gold standard of celiac disease diagnosis. This is typically performed as an outpatient procedure and you'll go home later that day.

How Celiac Disease Is Treated

Once you've received a diagnosis of celiac disease, your healthcare provider will advise you to immediately start a gluten-free diet.

A strict gluten-free diet is the only known effective treatment for celiac disease, and it must be followed for life once you have been diagnosed.

Once people with celiac start following a strict gluten-free diet, the majority of people experience a significant improvement in their symptoms within days or weeks. Without exposure to gluten, the damage in the small intestine will begin to heal. A gluten-free diet also prevents more damage from occurring.

In some cases, your healthcare provider might prescribe medication to help with rashes associated with celiac disease. They may also prescribe supplements to address any vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may have occurred due to nutrient malabsorption in the small intestine.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that can present with a wide range of symptoms, so it can be challenging to identify. Symptoms may occur that don't seem related to gluten intake.

If you are experiencing any changes in your digestion or troubling symptoms, consider speaking with your healthcare provider.

If you have a blood relative with celiac disease, it may also be a good idea to explore getting a blood test to confirm if you also test positive for celiac disease, or if you're a gene carrier.

Summary

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that can develop at any age. While it's not understood what causes symptoms to develop, researchers believe multiple factors may be at play. These risk factors include genes, family history of the condition, and environmental factors.

A Word From Verywell

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can occur at any age. Some people may develop the condition as children, while others won't develop the disease until adulthood or even late in life.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms that you suspect could be due to celiac disease, consult your healthcare provider. It is important to receive a proper diagnosis of celiac disease and if diagnosed, begin a gluten-free diet as soon as possible.

Fortunately, celiac disease is very manageable with a gluten-free diet, and most people are able to completely eradicate their symptoms and revitalize their health within a few weeks to months on a gluten-free diet.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can you eat with celiac disease?

    Those with celiac disease must not ingest any foods or drinks containing gluten. Naturally gluten-free foods include fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and some grains, such as rice, oats, and millet. There are also many packaged gluten-free alternatives for foods like pizza and pasta.

  • How do you lose weight with celiac disease?

    There is no evidence to suggest eliminating gluten from the diet will aid in weight loss. Those on a gluten-free diet may eat more whole foods and in turn, may eat fewer calories. But not all gluten-free foods are healthy or low calorie.

    Diet and exercise both play a role in weight loss. Eating more fruits and vegetables and moving more are good first steps toward losing weight.

  • How serious is celiac disease?

    Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease. It can cause damage to the small intestine and if left undiagnosed or untreated, it can result in long-term health complications, such as anemia, infertility, and heart disease, among other conditions.

    Those with celiac disease have twice the risk of developing coronary artery disease and four times the risk of developing small bowel cancers as the general population.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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