Children's Hospital Colorado

Celiac Disease in Children

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. It is estimated that between 1% and 3% of people could have celiac disease, but most remain undiagnosed.

Some children with celiac disease have many symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, poor growth, fatigue, and mood and behavior problems. Others have minimal or no symptoms despite having significant damage to their intestines.

The disease is triggered when children with certain genetic risk factors eat 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.

What causes celiac disease?

Researchers have identified two genes that put children at high risk for celiac disease: HLA-DQ2 and DQ8. Both genes are common, with about 40% of the population in the United States having one or both of the genes. However, only a small subset of people with these genes will go on to develop celiac disease over time as they eat a regular diet that includes gluten.

Celiac disease can be triggered by a viral illness or by developing another autoimmune disease first. Other times, the trigger is not clear. Ongoing research may help us better understand why some people who are risk for celiac disease develop it while others do not.

Who gets celiac disease?

Since the genes are so common in the general population, many people are at risk of possibly developing celiac disease. However, individuals with type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto's or Graves' disease), and first-degree relatives of someone with celiac disease have a higher risk.

People with these risk factors should be screened for celiac disease, even if they do not have symptoms. Other groups at increased risk include people with Down syndrome or other genetic conditions, as well as selective IgA deficiency. We recommend screening every one to three years for first-degree relatives who are under 18 years old and screening every five years for first-degree relatives who are over 18 years old.

Get to know our pediatric experts.

Edwin deZoeten, MD, PhD

Edwin deZoeten, MD, PhD

Gastroenterology - Pediatric

Deborah Neigut, MD

Deborah Neigut, MD

Gastroenterology - Pediatric

Frederick Suchy, MD

Frederick Suchy, MD

Gastroenterology - Pediatric, Pediatrics

Stephanie Petersburg, PA

Stephanie Petersburg, PA

Physician Assistant