Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity Linked to Skin Conditions

Your itchy, painful skin may indicate a gluten problem

Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can affect far more than just your digestive system—they also may affect your skin, in the form of several distinct skin conditions.

Around 15% to 25% of people with celiac suffer from dermatitis herpetiformis, a rash considered the skin manifestation of celiac disease. But this is by no means the only skin problem people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity may have.

Eczema, psoriasis, acne, chronic dry skin, hives and alopecia areata are possible in people with celiac disease, too. For some reason, they affect those with celiac more often than the general population. Researchers haven't focused as much on skin conditions in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but anecdotal reports indicate some people without celiac (but who still seem to react to gluten-containing grains) nonetheless find relief from troublesome skin conditions once they go gluten-free.

Although there's currently little clear medical evidence that consuming gluten actually causes these skin conditions, in some cases people have found relief by following the gluten-free diet.

Gluten May Affect Your Skin in Many Ways

The skin conditions associated with celiac disease run the gamut from itchy rashes to hair loss, but most seem to be at least in part autoimmune or genetic in nature. Here's a summary of the most common skin conditions currently associated with celiac disease, plus links to additional information:

Dermatitis Herpetiformis and Celiac Disease

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dermatitis eczema on skin
 PansLaos / Getty Images 

Dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin rash caused by gluten consumption, is usually (but not always) one of the itchiest rashes you'll ever experience, and lesions can sting and burn as well as itch. Lesions can appear anywhere but occur most often on the elbows, knees, buttocks, lower back and the back of the neck and head.

If you have dermatitis herpetiformis, you're considered to also have celiac disease as long as your celiac blood tests also are positive. Although your physician can prescribe the medication dapsone to temporarily subdue the rash and its itching, the gluten-free diet represents the only long-term treatment for dermatitis herpetiformis, although new treatments are being researched.

Psoriasis and Celiac Disease

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psoriasis near the scalp
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Several studies show that the skin condition psoriasis, which causes thick, scaly red plaques to develop on your skin, shares a strong link with gluten consumption. Psoriasis patients often have high levels of antibodies to gluten circulating in their bloodstreams, which indicates that they're reacting to gluten in their diets even if they haven't been diagnosed with celiac disease.

It's not clear whether the gluten is causing psoriasis, or if psoriasis patients also have higher rates of celiac disease—more research is needed to determine the cause and effect. However, some anecdotal reports indicate that psoriasis patients can see their skin symptoms improve dramatically when they adopt a gluten-free diet, regardless of whether they've been diagnosed with celiac disease.

Eczema and Celiac Disease

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dermatitis eczema
 PansLaos / Getty Images 

Eczema, another itchy rash, causes scaly, whitish patches on your skin. Eczema occurs most often in children, but adults also can suffer from the skin condition. Although the primary treatment for eczema is topical corticosteroids, there's some evidence that for some people, eczema may be linked to celiac disease. For these people, a gluten-free diet may help to treat their skin condition, too.

Alopecia Areata and Celiac Disease

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Alopecia areata on head
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition in which your body attacks your hair follicles and causes your hair to fall out, also has been linked in research studies to celiac disease. Again, the link between the two conditions isn't clear and could reflect a higher incidence of celiac in people with alopecia areata, as opposed to a cause-and-effect relationship for gluten in their diets.

Most of the research that shows a link between celiac disease and alopecia areata also reports that people with both celiac and alopecia areata found their hair grew back when they adopted a gluten-free diet. Still, some non-celiacs with alopecia areata also can experience seemingly random hair regrowth, as well.

Chronic Urticaria (Hives) and Celiac Disease

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Urticaria on skin
DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND 

A 2005 study found that 5% of children with chronic urticaria (colloquially known as hives) also had celiac disease. Once the children in the study were diagnosed with celiac disease and adopted the gluten-free diet, all saw their chronic urticaria disappear within five to 10 weeks.

Acne and Celiac Disease

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Acne on face
DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Although there's no published medical research showing a link between celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and the common teenage skin condition acne, many acne sufferers have reported relief from their skin condition when they went gluten-free. However, if the acne sufferers adopted a low-carb diet in addition to a diet devoid of gluten, it's possible that caused the acne improvement since low-carb diets have been shown to clear pimples.

Keratosis Pilaris (Chicken Skin) and Celiac Disease

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Keratosis pilaris
DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Again, while there's no research that links celiac with keratosis pilaris, a skin condition that causes tiny goosebump-like bumps to form, mainly on the backs of your upper arms, many people report that the condition disappears once they adopt a gluten-free diet. Keratosis pilaris is more common in those with eczema and seems to run in families.

Dry Skin and Celiac Disease

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Dry skin
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Many people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity suffer from very dry skin, and in some cases, this clears up after they adopt a gluten-free diet. Again, it's not clear whether the condition causes the dry skin, but some physicians have suggested that the malabsorption associated with the untreated celiac disease can rob your skin of needed nutrients.

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