Celiac Disease Symptoms in Children

Your child's doctor may be more likely to suspect celiac disease when your child exhibits the "classic" symptoms of copious diarrhea and fatigue plus a bloated tummy and pain. However, celiac disease symptoms in children can be subtle: In some cases, your child may simply not be growing as rapidly as her peers, or she may be irritable and inattentive.

Sad young girl laying on a sofa
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The wide array of possible celiac disease signs and symptoms (there are more than 200) means that you may want to consider testing for celiac disease in cases where your child doesn't have clear-cut digestive effects... especially if you have a family history of the condition.

Typical Symptoms in Children

Celiac disease frequently is diagnosed in children who suffer from large amounts of smelly diarrhea, plus abdominal bloating and pain. These children often look as if they have malnutrition (which they do since their digestive systems aren't absorbing the nutrients they consume). Although these kids can be very skinny, their stomachs may stick out significantly due to the bloating.

Instead of diarrhea, children also can suffer from constipation due to celiac disease. Celiac constipation also occurs with bloating and abdominal pain and some children may have alternating diarrhea and constipation.​

Another "typical" symptom of celiac disease in children is a failure to thrive—these children fall behind on the growth curve, showing height and weight gain that's significantly below that of their same-age peers. If they remain undiagnosed, these children might wind up shorter than their peers as adults due to their celiac disease.

However, children with celiac disease are not always underweight and short, so you can't tell if they have the condition just based on their weight and height (although you certainly can suspect it, especially if there's a family history of the condition). One study found that almost one in five children was overweight at diagnosis, while 75% were considered normal weight. Most of those children who were too heavy when they were diagnosed with lost weight after they began following the gluten-free diet.

Children showing typical symptoms of celiac disease tend to get diagnosed earlier than those who exhibit less typical symptoms, probably because their physicians recognize the possibility of celiac more readily. They also have more celiac-related intestinal damage than children with atypical celiac symptoms.

Not-So-Typical Symptoms in Children

Not every child shows those "typical" symptoms. A large minority of children—one study showed about 30%—have only iron deficiency anemia as a primary sign of celiac disease. This anemia, which is thought to occur in both children and adults with celiac because they cannot absorb iron from foods they consume, usually resolves itself fairly quickly once the person is diagnosed with celiac disease and begins following the gluten-free diet.

Many children with undiagnosed celiac also display near-constant irritability, although it's not clear why this occurs. It's possible that they simply don't feel well, or there may be a connection with vitamin deficiencies—possibly deficiencies in vitamin B-12 and essential fatty acids, both of which affect mood and nerve function. Many children with newly diagnosed celiac have deficiencies in vitamin D, iron, and zinc.

Finally, a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in your child may be an indication that she should be tested for celiac disease. As many as 15% of people with ADHD may have celiac disease, and adopting the gluten-free diet seems to relieve their symptoms of ADHD quickly and thoroughly.

When to Test

Like adults, children can develop celiac disease at any time, and so should be tested if they display symptoms... even if those symptoms are subtle or atypical.

In addition, children with close relatives who have celiac also should be tested, even if they don't seem to have any symptoms. It's fairly common to find "silent" or symptomless celiac disease in relatives of recently-diagnosed celiacs, and those people also should adopt a gluten-free diet to avoid future complications of the condition.

Celiac diagnosis usually involves a panel of celiac blood tests looking for specific antibodies. If those come back positive or suggestive of celiac disease, the next step is an endoscopy that looks for intestinal damage.

If your child ultimately is diagnosed with celiac, the only available treatment is a gluten-free diet. The good news: Your child may enjoy a growth spurt once diagnosed, and she may shed any inattentiveness and irritability quickly, too. Many parents find their newly diagnosed child seems much happier, is more energetic and even does better in school once she starts the diet.

5 Sources
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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  2. Dinler G, Atalay E, Kalayci AG. Celiac disease in 87 children with typical and atypical symptoms in Black Sea region of Turkey. World J Pediatr. 2009;5(4):282-6. doi:10.1007/s12519-009-0053-y

  3. Reilly NR, Aguilar K, Hassid BG, et al. Celiac disease in normal-weight and overweight children: clinical features and growth outcomes following a gluten-free diet. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2011;53(5):528-31. doi:10.1097/MPG.0b013e3182276d5e

  4. Erdem T, Ferat Ç, Nurdan YA, et al. Vitamin and mineral deficiency in children newly diagnosed with celiac disease. Turk J Med Sci. 2015;45(4):833-6.

  5. Niederhofer H. Association of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and celiac disease: a brief reportPrim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2011;13(3):PCC.10br01104. doi:10.4088/PCC.10br01104

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.