May marks celiac disease awareness month– a time we can take to recognize the symptoms and risk factors of the condition. Although it is often confused with a food allergy, celiac disease is actually an inherited, lifelong autoimmune disease. It can only be treated by lifestyle changes, so you need to see a doctor to be sure that you have celiac disease. Here’s what you need to know about celiac disease, including common symptoms, who is at risk, and when to see a healthcare provider.
What is celiac disease, and who is at risk?
Celiac disease is a lifelong illness that causes the immune system to attack the small intestine if the person with the disease consumes gluten. These attacks damage villi, which line the small intestine, and block nutrient absorption. Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. Common gluten products include bread, pasta, cookies, crackers, and beer. Although celiac disease is lifelong, it can present at any age. One theory suggests that significant physical stress that overextends the immune system, such as surgery, pregnancy, illness, or severe emotional trauma, can trigger celiac disease in those who are already at risk. Celiac disease often first appears in early childhood (when a child starts eating gluten) and between the ages of 40 and 60.
Celiac disease is mostly found in people of Northern European descent, and in those who have a first-degree relative (such as a parent or child) with the condition. You are at higher risk for celiac disease if you are white, assigned female at birth, have a relative with the disease, have a chromosomal disorder like Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, or Williams syndrome, or have another autoimmune disease.
How to identify the signs and symptoms of celiac disease
The most common symptom of celiac disease is gastrointestinal upset after consuming gluten. If you have celiac disease, you may experience stomach pain, bloating, constipation, gas, or diarrhea after eating gluten products. Other symptoms like fatigue, paleness, poor circulation, brittle nails, headaches, and mouth sores may also be present.
If celiac disease is causing malnutrition due to the body’s inability to absorb nutrients, your symptoms may include weight loss, growth delays in children, muscle atrophy, abnormal periods, difficulty getting pregnant, translucent teeth or other dental enamel defects, irritability, and depression.
Some people with celiac disease may develop the skin condition dermatitis herpetiformis, also known as the “celiac rash” or “gluten rash.” Dermatitis herpetiformis appears as an itchy rash that looks like clusters of blisters or bumps, often on the scalp, buttocks, elbows, or knees.
When to see a healthcare provider
If you suspect you or your child has celiac disease, you need to seek medical attention right away. A doctor can help you determine whether celiac disease is at the root of the symptoms and may test for food allergies. Celiac disease cannot be cured, but it is treatable by abstaining from gluten products for life. Even eating small amounts of gluten can trigger an attack of symptoms or cause malabsorption of nutrients. Your doctor may also prescribe a regimen of foods and supplements that can help heal the gut and get your health back on track.
For more information about Celiac disease symptoms and risk factors, visit AFC Urgent Care Waltham. Our providers can help manage acute conditions and refer more severe conditions to a specialist for appropriate care.