Celiac Disease: Overview

What is celiac disease?

Gluten intolerance treated in the Digestive Health Institute

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes injury to the small intestine. The disease is triggered when children with a certain genetic profile eat dietary gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. People aren’t born with celiac disease, but they might be born with the genes that put them at risk for getting it. Eating gluten could cause celiac disease, and removing all gluten from your diet will allow the intestines to heal and improve symptoms.

We test for celiac disease with a blood test (called a tissue transglutaminase autoantibody test) and confirm the diagnosis with biopsies of the small intestine. During the biopsy your child will be asleep to prevent pain. Surgeons will use a small camera that guides them as they take small samples of tissue for the intestine to examine under a microscope. It is estimated that about 1 in every 100 individuals could have celiac disease, but many remain undiagnosed.

Learn about the Colorado Center for Celiac Disease at Children's Hospital Colorado.

What causes celiac disease?

Two genes have been identified that put children at high risk for celiac disease, HLA-DQ2 and DQ8. Both genes are actually common, with about 40% of the population in Denver having one of the genes. However, only a subset of individuals with these genes will go on to develop celiac disease over time if they eat a regular gluten-containing diet. In someone with celiac disease, continuing to eat gluten will cause ongoing intestinal injury and symptoms, but no one really knows what triggers the autoimmune process that makes them sensitive to gluten in the first place.

Who gets celiac disease?

Since the genes are so common in the general population, many people are actually at risk of developing celiac disease. However, individuals with type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and first-degree relatives of someone with celiac disease are specifically at risk. People with these risk factors should be screened for celiac disease. There are other groups at risk, such as people with Down syndrome or selective IgA deficiency.

Helpful resources

The Children’s Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation provides information about celiac disease and gluten-free diets for patients and their families.

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