Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where your body reacts adversely to gluten causing a variety of issues with your digestive system.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is triggered by your body’s immune system reacting to gluten, which is a type of protein found in many foods, including:

  • Bread, cakes and biscuits
  • Pasta
  • Cereals
  • Some sauces and ready meals
  • Most beers

Eating foods containing gluten triggers an autoimmune response and your immune system starts to attack the lining of your small intestine. This damages the lining, making it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients - causing symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Coeliac disease is a chronic (long-term) condition affecting one in every 100 people. Women are more likely to have coeliac disease than men. It can develop at any age. However, symptoms are most likely to appear during early childhood or when you’re between 40 and 60.

Coeliac disease can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms are similar to other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance or a food allergy.

If undiagnosed, it can make a considerable impact on your daily life.

There’s no cure for coeliac disease. However, once diagnosed, coeliac disease can be successfully treated by permanently changing to a strict gluten-free diet (a coeliac diet).

How to tell if you have coeliac disease

Symptoms vary from person to person, but signs that you may have coeliac disease include:

If you think your child may have coeliac disease, childhood symptoms to look out for include:

  • Slow weight gain and growth
  • Irritability
  • Muscle wasting

In some cases, coeliac disease is symptomless and only discovered during tests for other medical conditions.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for coeliac disease

Your GP will discuss your symptoms and family history and may examine your abdomen. They’ll also give you a coeliac disease test to check if your blood contains anti-gluten antibodies. You’ll need to continue eating foods containing gluten before having a coeliac disease test.

If the results of your test are positive, your GP will refer you to a gastroenterologist for an intestinal biopsy. This is to rule out other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and certain cancers, and confirm coeliac disease.

Causes of coeliac disease

The exact cause of coeliac disease is currently unknown, but there may be a genetic link. Research has discovered that one in 10 people with coeliac disease have an immediate relative with coeliac disease.

Other factors which increase the risk of coeliac disease include having:

  • A digestive infection
  • Another autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes or autoimmune thyroid or liver disease

Common treatments for coeliac disease

A gluten-free diet is the only successful treatment for coeliac disease.

After diagnosis, if you stop eating all foods containing gluten, your damaged small intestine will begin to recover. Any symptoms will improve and your risk of long-term conditions such as anaemia or osteoporosis will reduce.

At first, you may find it difficult to remove gluten from your diet. However, your GP or gastroenterologist will refer you to a specialist dietitian. With regular appointments, your dietitian can advise, inform and support you as you follow a gluten-free diet.