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What is coeliac disease? Causes, symptoms and treatment

What is it coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, what causes it, what are the symptoms and what can you do about it?

Coeliac disease is a permanent intolerance to dietary gluten, and can be triggered by eating wheat, rye, barley and possibly oats. Consumption of gluten causes the finger-like ‘villi’, which line the small intestine to become stunted, reducing their ability to absorb nutrients.

There is still much to be learnt about how and why gluten harms the intestine in those with coeliac disease.

What is known, however, is that an immune reaction occurs in genetically susceptible people to the gluten fraction of wheat (gliadin), rye (secalin) and barley (hordein).

The classic symptoms of coeliac disease in infancy include diarrhoea, failure to thrive and irritability. Older children may have short stature, rickets and anaemia.

In adults, the symptoms are often more insidious, with general tiredness, weight loss and diarrhoea being common. There may also be deficiencies of some nutrients, eg iron and folate.

Coeliac disease is treated with a gluten-free diet, with total exclusion of wheat, rye, barley and possibly oats.

Don’t self-diagnose – if you think this might be your problem you need to see your doctor first, before eliminating anything from your diet.

There remains controversy about whether oats can be included in the diet with recent studies suggesting that up to 50g of oats per day are harmless. However, these studies did not include children or people with severe coeliac disease.

For individual advice about oats it’s best to talk to a dietitian.

Date modified: 25 October 2019
First published: Sep 2006


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