Coeliac disease, one cause of ‘gluten intolerance’, is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten (a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats) that damages the small bowel and affects food absorption.
This can result in health problems such as malnutrition and osteoporosis.
The abnormal immune response to gluten causes damage to the small bowel when the tiny, finger-like projections lining the bowel, called villi, become inflamed and flattened. This is called villous atrophy and it reduces the available surface area of the bowel to absorb nutrients from food.
People with coeliac disease can have severe symptoms, or they may have no obvious symptoms at all. Common symptoms include:
- weight loss
- flatulence (passing wind)
- feeling pain or discomfort in the stomach
- feeling tired and weak.
Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
Coeliac disease affects people of all ages and gender, but you must be born with a genetic predisposition to the disease for it to develop. Environmental factors then play an important role in triggering the disease. This can happen at any age from infancy to adulthood.
It is very important to be properly diagnosed with coeliac disease by a doctor because it is a serious medical condition that affects people for their whole life. Coeliac disease is an important cause of gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance).
If you think you may have coeliac disease don’t stop eating foods that contain gluten until after you have been diagnosed as stopping gluten means the tests are unreliable. Diagnosis involves blood tests and a small bowel biopsy (tiny samples of your small bowel will be collected by a doctor).
Coeliac disease can’t be cured, but it can be controlled with a strict, lifelong gluten free diet. If coeliac disease is not well controlled it can lead to complications such as osteoporosis, infertility, chronic poor health, depression and teeth problems. However, early diagnosis and treatment of coeliac disease significantly reduces the risk of most complications ever occurring.
Sources: Coeliac Australia (Associated conditions, Coeliac disease, Diagnosis, Living with coeliac disease, Symptoms), Gastroenterological Society of Australia (Coeliac disease, Coeliac disease, PDF - document)
Last reviewed: August 2015