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Coeliac disease

What is coeliac disease?

  • Coeliac disease is a condition where the immune system responds abnormally to a food protein called gluten found in food containing wheat, rye or barley
  • This causes damage to the gut lining of the small intestine, poor absorption of food and growth problems
  • Symptoms include diarrhoea, bloating and stomach pain. It can also cause sore joints, headaches and ‘flu-like symptoms
  • Avoidance of gluten-containing food causes the lining of the intestine to heal and symptoms to improve
  • Other names used for coeliac disease are gluten sensitive enteropathy, coeliac sprue and nontropical sprue

How common is coeliac disease?

  • Coeliac disease occurs in 1/100 people in the United Kingdom and is one of the most common life-long conditions in Western countries
  • The incidence in South Africa is unknown, but it is probably under-diagnosed
  • Coeliac disease is more common in people with insulin-dependent diabetes, Down’s syndrome, selective IgA deficiency, auto-immune disorders or a family history of coeliac disease
What causes coeliac disease?
  • When exposed to the gluten protein in wheat, barley and rye, genetically susceptible people develop abnormal antibodies to proteins in their own bodies, called auto-antibodies
  • Antibodies are proteins in the immune system that usually attacks viruses and bacteria to protect the body
  • In coeliac disease these antibodies attack the body itself and cause damage to the lining of the gut and other organs. This results in the symptoms of coeliac disease
  • Coeliac disease is different from a wheat allergy where IgE mediated antibodies cause symptoms
What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?

The symptoms of coeliac disease can vary from mild to severe and from person to person.

Common symptoms include:

• Diarrhoea
• Pale, smelly stools
• Constipation
• Poor appetite
• Bloating, excessive gas production and abdominal pain
• Weight loss or difficulty in gaining weight
• Nausea and vomiting
• Delayed onset of puberty
• Not menstruating
• Tiredness or weakness
• Mouth ulcers
• Itchy blister-like skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis

Less common symptoms:

• Infertility
• Disorders of the nervous system
• Thinning of the bones
• Poor growth
• Iron deficiency anaemia (low blood count due to a lack of iron)

• Teeth abnormalities

These symptoms may develop in infancy at about 6-24 months with the introduction of gluten-containing solids in the diet, but may also develop later. Children present with the common gastrointestinal symptoms, where adults present with the less common symptoms.

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