Coeliac disease, also known as celiac disease, is a common digestive condition where a person is intolerant (has an adverse reaction) to the protein gluten. If someone with coeliac disease is exposed to gluten, they may experience a wide range of symptoms and adverse effects, including:
- abdominal pain
The symptoms of coeliac disease are caused by the immune system (the body’s natural defence system against infection) mistaking gluten for a hostile organism, such as a virus. The immune system attacks the gluten, which can lead to the small intestine becoming damaged.
The symptoms of coeliac disease can range from very mild to severe.
Gluten is a protein that is found in three types of cereal:
Gluten is found in any food that contains the above cereals including:
- breakfast cereals
- most type of bread
How common is coeliac disease?
During the 1980s, before advances in testing for coeliac disease were made, the condition was mistakenly thought to be rare.
However, coeliac disease is now known to be a common condition that affects approximately 1 in every 100 people in the UK. Women are two to three times more likely to develop coeliac disease than men.
It is not known whether the intolerance to gluten (and the resulting symptoms of coeliac disease) is present at birth or develops later on in life. Cases of coeliac disease have been diagnosed in people of all ages.
In many cases, coeliac disease does not cause any noticeable symptoms, or it causes very mild symptoms. As a result, it is thought that at least 50% or possibly as many as 90% of cases are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as other digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The cause or causes of coeliac disease are unknown, but it is thought to be associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
If successfully diagnosed, the outlook for coeliac disease is generally good. There is no cure for coeliac disease, but switching to a gluten-free diet should help control the condition’s symptoms. See Coeliac disease - treatment for more information and advice about gluten-free diets.
The outlook for untreated coeliac disease can range from moderate to poor. Without treatment, coeliac disease can cause a wide range of potential long-term complications such as:
- osteoporosis (weakening of the bones)
- growth defects
See Coeliac disease - complications for more information.