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Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity

Photo of a teenage girl with a stomach ache.

People who have celiac (say: SEE-lee-ak) disease can't eat something called gluten, which is in foods made with wheat, rye, and barley. When the person eats gluten, a couple of things happen. First, the immune system, which usually fights off germs, starts to harm the digestive system. And because the digestive system isn't working right, the person can't get the nutrients the body needs to be healthy and strong.

The only way to deal with celiac disease is to avoid gluten. That may sound pretty hard, but there are lots of healthy — and yummy — options. Keep reading to learn more about celiac disease, including:

Celiac symptoms arrow top

Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Feeling very tired
  • Becoming irritable or depressed
  • Losing weight
  • A very itchy skin rash with blisters

If a person with celiac disease keeps eating gluten, there could be some other serious effects. For example, there could be long-term bone problems, and it could be hard for a woman to get pregnant. Someone who thinks she may have celiac disease should see a doctor.

Diagnosing celiac disease arrow top

It can be hard to diagnose celiac disease because other diseases have similar symptoms. You may have to go through several steps to get a diagnosis. Your doctor may ask you if anyone else in your family has celiac disease, because that increases the chances that you may have it. Your doctor also likely will do a blood test. You may also have a test called an endoscopy, in which a tube is placed down your throat and into your digestive system. It may feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt.

Living with celiac disease arrow top

At first, it can seem hard to give up all the foods that are made with gluten. From pizza to pasta and cakes to couscous, lots of foods have gluten. But several tips can help:

  • Learn about ingredients. You might be surprised by which foods have gluten, such as packaged rice mixes, lunchmeats, canned soups, and instant cocoa. Get a list of which items to avoid. You can ask your doctor or a celiac disease organization.
  • Look for alternatives. Gluten-free breads, cakes, pastas, and many other products are available. Look in health food stores and some supermarkets.
  • Work with friends and family. Make sure people keep anything with gluten away from your food. Even a small amount of gluten can hurt your digestive system.
  • Read labels. Remember that "wheat-free" doesn't mean "gluten-free."
  • Join a support group. Other people with celiac will have helpful advice and can really understand what you are going through. Ask your doctor if there is a group in your area.
  • See a dietitian. A dietitian can help you figure out a healthy eating plan.

If you have celiac disease, remember that it can take time to adjust to the changes you're facing.

Gluten sensitivity arrow top

Sometimes a person may not have celiac disease but still have problems with gluten. This may be called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. It also may be called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Gluten sensitivity can cause similar symptoms to celiac disease, such as tiredness and stomachaches. It can cause other symptoms too, including muscle cramps and leg numbness. Gluten sensitivity doesn't harm a person's digestive system the same way celiac does, and it affects your body differently from a wheat allergy.

Researchers are still learning more about gluten sensitivity. If your doctor thinks you have this problem, he or she may suggest that you avoid eating gluten to see if your symptoms go away. However, before starting to avoid gluten, you should be tested to rule out celiac disease, which is a serious disorder.


Content last reviewed November 05, 2013
Page last updated December 23, 2013