Definition & Facts for Celiac Disease

On this page:

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a chronic digestive and immune disorder that damages the small intestine. The disease is triggered by eating foods containing gluten. Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat, barley, and rye, and is common in foods such as bread, pasta, cookies, and cakes. Many products contain gluten, such as prepackaged foods, lip balms and lipsticks, toothpastes, vitamin and nutrient supplements, and, rarely, medicines.

Celiac disease can be serious. The disease can cause long-lasting digestive problems and keep your body from getting all the nutrients it needs. Celiac disease can also affect the body outside the small intestine.

Celiac disease is different from gluten sensitivity or wheat intolerance. If you have gluten sensitivity, you may have symptoms like those of celiac disease, such as abdominal pain and tiredness. Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not damage the small intestine.

A wheat field.Celiac disease is triggered by
eating foods containing gluten, like wheat.

Celiac disease is also different from a wheat allergy, a type of food allergy. In both cases, your body’s immune system reacts to wheat. However, some symptoms of wheat allergies, such as having itchy eyes or a hard time breathing, are different from celiac disease. Wheat allergies also do not cause long-term damage to the small intestine.

Does celiac disease have other names?

Celiac disease is also called celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

How common is celiac disease?

Many people who have celiac disease have not been diagnosed. However, experts estimate about 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease and about 1 percent of people around the world have celiac disease.1,2

Who is more likely to develop celiac disease?

Celiac disease can only occur in people who have certain genes. You are more likely to develop celiac disease if someone in your family has the disease.

Celiac disease affects children and adults in all parts of the world. In the United States, celiac disease is more common among white Americans than among other racial or ethnic groups. A celiac disease diagnosis is more common in females than in males.1

Celiac disease is also more common in people who have certain chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and Williams syndrome.

What other health problems do people with celiac disease have?

Experts have found that some people have both celiac disease and other disorders related to the immune system. These disorders include

What are the complications of celiac disease?

Long-term complications of celiac disease include

  • accelerated osteoporosis or bone softening, known as osteomalacia
  • anemia
  • malnutrition, a condition in which you don’t get enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need to be healthy
  • nervous system problems
  • problems related to the reproductive system

Rare complications can include

In rare cases, you may continue to have trouble absorbing nutrients even though you have been following a strict gluten-free diet. If you have this condition, called refractory celiac disease, your small intestine is severely damaged and can’t heal. You may need to receive intravenous (IV) nutrients and specialized treatment.

References

Last Reviewed October 2020
Share

This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.