Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.

A diagram that illustrates how celiac disease affects normal villi in the small intestine.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease.

Long-Term Health Effects

Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.

These include the development of other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.

Treatment

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer. Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.

Read about the Gluten-Free Diet.

Celiac disease is also known as coeliac disease, celiac sprue, non-tropical sprue, and gluten sensitive enteropathy.

A table illustrating how age of diagnosis influences the chances of developing another autoimmune condition
Early Diagnosis Lowers Chance for Developing Another Condition
Age of DiagnosisChance of developing another autoimmune condition
2-410.5%
4-1216.7%
12-2027%
Over 2034%

Undiagnosed or Untreated Celiac Disease Can Lead to:

Long-Term Health Conditions

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Early onset osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Intestinal lymphomas and other GI cancers (malignancies)
  • Gall bladder malfunction
  • Neurological manifestations, including ataxia, epileptic seizures, dementia, migraine, neuropathy, myopathy and multifocal leucoencephalopathy

Other Autoimmune Disorders

In a 1999 study, Ventura, et al. found that for people with celiac disease, the later the age of diagnosis, the greater the chance of developing another autoimmune disorder.

Think you or someone you know may have celiac disease?

Review the symptoms
Autoimmune and Other Conditions Associated with Celiac Disease
Autoimmune ConditionPrevalence in CD Population
Anemia12-69%
Autoimmune Hepatitis2%
Autoimmune Thyroid Disease26%
Chronic fatigue syndrome2%
Dermatitis Herpetiformis25%
Down's syndrome12%
Gluten ataxia10-12%
Idiopathic Dilated Cardiomyapathy5.7%
Juveline Idiopathic Arthritis1.5-6.6%
Liver Disease10%
Lymphocytic Colitis15-27%
Microscopic Colitis4%
Peripheral Neuropathy10-12%
Primary Bilary Cirrhosis3%
Sjögren’s Syndrome3%
Type 1 Diabetes8-10%
Unexplained infertility12%

Blood. 2007 Jan 15; 109(2): 412–421, Biomed Res Int. 2013; 2013: 127589, Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010;4(6):767-780, PMC 2009; 55:349–365, Gut 49.4 (2001): 502-505, Ravelli, Lancet; 2007, 369(9563):767-78, Bai, et al. “World Gastroenterology Organization Practice Guidelines:.” World Gastroenterology Organization.