Diseases & Conditions
Gluten is a wheat protein
Coeliac disease is a gut disorder which can strike at any age.
It is thought to affect one in 100 people in the UK. It is also known to run in families.
What is Coeliac Disease?
Coeliac disease is caused by gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, and other similar proteins that are found in rye and barley.
In some people these proteins cause damage to the tiny projections - or villi - that line the small intestine.
Villi play a significant role in the digestion process.
However, when damaged they become inflamed.
This renders them unable to absorb food properly, and can lead to diarrhoea and malnutrition.
What are the symptoms?
In small children with Coeliac disease can cause chronic diarrhoea, distension of the abdomen and muscle wasting.
Infants with the disease are likely to be poor feeders, fail to put on weight in the normal way and fail to thrive.
Adults suffer from chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, weakness, fatigue, breathlessness and anaemia.
Are there any complications?
What complications can occur?
Women with untreated gluten sensitivity can experience infertility, but this is restored when they stop eating gluten.
People with the disorder are also at heightened risk of the brittle bone disease osteoporosis.
More severe damage than usual, including narrowing of the intestine, and even the development of a special form of cancer can rarely occur.
These complications are very uncommon, especially if the condition is well treated.
Is it linked to any other condition?
People with a condition called dermatitis herpetiformis are almost gluten sensitive.
This condition causes an itchy, blistering skin eruption affecting the knees, elbows, buttocks and back.
How is Coeliac disease diagnosed?
A blood test can now help doctors to tell if somebody is likely to have the condition.
However, the only way to confirm a diagnosis is to remove a small piece of tissue from the intestine for analysis in the laboratory.
How can it be controlled?
The only way to keep the symptoms under control is to eat a diet completely free of gluten and related proteins.
Once this is done, people with coeliac disease find that their symptoms quickly disappear and that they are able to lead an active and healthy life without any problems.
What foods are safe to eat?
Food that is completely free of gluten includes fruit, vegetables, fresh meat, fish, cheese, eggs, and milk.
Foods that contain wheat, barley, and rye should be avoided and replaced with rice and corn flour, for example.
These include bread, biscuits, cakes, pastries, puddings and pies, which are all usually made with flour containing gluten.
Wheat flour is also widely used in many processed foods.