Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which foods that contain the protein gluten—found in wheat, barley, and rye—trigger your white blood cells to attack the lining of your small intestine, ultimately eroding it until it's worn smooth. 

Celiac has a wide range of potential symptoms, from abdominal pain to headaches. These symptoms and intestinal damage can be largely reversed once you're diagnosed and follow a gluten-free diet—the only current treatment for the condition.

People with untreated celiac disease often cannot absorb nutrients from their food, and this can lead to serious health complications, such as malnutrition, osteoporosis, infertility, and even cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I get tested for celiac disease?

    The best way to be tested for celiac disease is to discuss your symptoms with a doctor. They can perform blood tests, an endoscopy, and a biopsy to look for signs. You might be tempted to test yourself at home by going gluten-free. However, this is not only difficult, it could hamper your doctor’s efforts to diagnose you, as gluten-related damage must be present for celiac to be identified.

  • What causes celiac disease?

    Experts aren’t certain what causes celiac disease, but many believe it starts with a genetic potential and then requires a triggering event, such as a period of extreme stress or pregnancy. However, some people with a gradual onset might not have this kind of trigger.

  • Is celiac disease genetic?

    Research suggests that some people have the genetic potential to develop celiac disease and it can run in families. Having a close relative who’s diagnosed with celiac increases your risk of developing it, but even having multiple relatives with the disease is no guarantee you’ll end up with it. You may learn more about your risk via genetic testing.

  • How is celiac disease diagnosed?

    Celiac disease is typically diagnosed with blood tests and an endoscopy. Blood tests look for an antibody produced by the immune system of people with celiac in response to gluten’s presence in the digestive tract. In an endoscopy, a doctor uses a scope to examine your small intestine and take samples to look at under a microscope. If those samples show villous atrophy, it means you have celiac.

  • Is celiac an allergy or an autoimmune disease?

    A lot of people refer to it as a gluten allergy, but celiac is an autoimmune disease. That means the immune system has mistakenly identified gluten in your small intestine as a threat, as if it were a virus or other pathogen. It then creates antibodies that attack the small intestine, trying to destroy the gluten. Some people are allergic to wheat, but that’s not the same thing as celiac.

  • What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

    Celiac can cause more than 200 symptoms all throughout your body, but the primary ones are digestive. Common symptoms include: 

    Symptoms can vary greatly. Some people with celiac have no symptoms at all.


Key Terms

Celiac Disease in the Digestive System

In celiac disease, gluten causes damage to the villi of the small intestine, short projections that absorb nutrients. Explore an interactive model that shows how this damage can deepen the area between villi known as intestinal crypts, causing lesions to form on the intestine.

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