Coeliac disease, sometimes called "sprue," is a hereditary autoimmune disorder that can be fatal if left untreated. The small intestines are lined with microscopic hairlike projections called villi. The villi act as a filter by grabbing all of the nutrients in the food you eat, so they can be absorbed and used in your body. If you have coeliac disease and ingest gluten, your body will produce antibodies that destroy the villi causing these nutrients to pass through your system. Eating a gluten-free diet is the only treatment for coeliac disease. Knowing the symptoms is the first step in obtaining a coeliac-disease diagnosis.
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The chief symptoms of coeliac disease are limited to the digestive system. These include diarrhoea, intestinal cramping and bloating. Subtle symptoms include floating or fatty stools. These symptoms are chronic in a person with coeliac disease. You may notice that the symptoms are more prominent after you have eaten wheat, breads, cereals and grains. These foods contain gluten.
Symptoms of Malnutrition
Coeliac disease causes malnutrition because the nutrients are excreted from the body and not absorbed. The most obvious symptom of malnutrition is weight loss. Other symptoms include tooth decay, osteoporosis, vitamin deficiency, abdominal distension and water retention. Coeliac patients often are thin, with excessively large abdomens.
Coeliac disease can cause symptoms that are not related to any specific body part and can be difficult to relay to the doctor. Chronic fatigue, anxiety and general malaise are all symptoms of coeliac disease. Other symptoms include depression, mood swings, insomnia and excessive irritability.
Symptoms in Children
Some symptoms of coeliac disease only are experienced by children. Failure to thrive, inability to gain weight and short stature are common symptoms in children with coeliac disease. Symptoms are evident as soon as the child begins to eat gluten. Gluten is a common ingredient in baby cereal and some formulas. Between 1 and 5 months of age, a coeliac baby who regularly eats gluten will begin to experience weight loss, lethargy and abdominal bloating. Older children may exhibit unusual personality changes in conjunction with other symptoms of coeliac disease.
Diagnosing Celiac Disease
If you experience symptoms of coeliac disease, your doctor will order a blood test called a coeliac panel. This will test for the antibodies that your body produces when you eat gluten. An elevated count of tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTGA), suggests possible coeliac disease. A biopsy of the small intestine will confirm the diagnosis of coeliac disease.
Once a person is diagnosed with coeliac disease, it is necessary that all family members are tested to see if they have a gene that predisposes them to the disease. This can be done by a blood test or cheek swab. Testing negative for the gene means that you do not have coeliac disease and cannot develop it. Testing positive for a coeliac gene, either gene DQ2 or DQ8, does not mean that you have coeliac disease. It does place you at risk for developing it. At-risk people must be tested repeatedly for gluten antibodies. Most people with the gene experience symptoms and are diagnosed during childhood. Other people with the coeliac gene develop symptoms and are diagnosed later in life.
Once you have a confirmed a coeliac-disease diagnosis, you must avoid eating gluten. This can be easier said than done. Most breads and flour products contain gluten. However, gluten can be hidden in foods such as sausage, liquorice, blue cheese and most alcoholic beverages. Gluten is not limited to food. Lipsticks usually contain some gluten and can potentially be ingested. Vitamins and medications are often made using gluten as a binder. It only takes a small amount of gluten to trigger coeliac disease symptoms.
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