Symptoms & Causes of Celiac Disease

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Most people with celiac disease have one or more symptoms. However, some people with the disease may not have symptoms or feel sick. Sometimes health issues such as surgery, a pregnancy, childbirth, bacterial gastroenteritis, a viral infection, or severe mental stress can trigger celiac disease symptoms.

If you have celiac disease, you may have digestive problems or other symptoms. Digestive symptoms are more common in children and can include

  • bloating, or a feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen
  • chronic diarrhea
  • constipation
  • gas
  • nausea
  • pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stools that float
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting

For children with celiac disease, being unable to absorb nutrients when they are so important to normal growth and development can lead to

  • damage to the permanent teeth’s enamel
  • delayed puberty
  • failure to thrive in infants
  • mood changes or feeling annoyed or impatient
  • slowed growth and short height
  • weight loss
A person standing on a scale.
Celiac disease in children may lead to weight loss.

Adults are less likely to have digestive symptoms and, instead, may have one or more of the following:

  • anemia
  • a red, smooth, shiny tongue
  • bone or joint pain
  • depression or anxiety
  • dermatitis herpetiformis
  • headaches
  • infertility or repeated miscarriage
  • missed menstrual periods
  • mouth problems such a canker sores or dry mouth
  • seizures
  • tingling numbness in the hands and feet
  • tiredness
  • weak and brittle bones

Adults who have digestive symptoms with celiac disease may have

  • abdominal pain and bloating
  • intestinal blockages
  • tiredness that lasts for long periods of time
  • ulcers, or sores on the stomach or lining of the intestine

Celiac disease also can produce a reaction in which your immune system, or your body’s natural defense system, attacks healthy cells in your body. This reaction can spread outside your digestive tract to other areas of your body, including your

  • bones
  • joints
  • nervous system
  • skin
  • spleen

Depending on how old you are when a doctor diagnoses your celiac disease, some symptoms, such as short height and tooth defects, will not improve.

Dermatitis herpetiformis

Dermatitis herpetiformis is an itchy, blistering skin rash that usually appears on the elbows, knees, buttocks, back, or scalp. The rash affects about 10 percent of people with celiac disease. The rash can affect people of all ages but is most likely to appear for the first time between the ages of 30 and 40. Men who have the rash also may have oral or, rarely, genital sores. Some people with celiac disease may have the rash and no other symptoms.

Why are celiac disease symptoms so varied?

Symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person. Your symptoms may depend on

  • how long you were breastfed as an infant; some studies have shown that the longer you were breastfed, the later celiac disease symptoms appear
  • how much gluten you eat
  • how old you were when you started eating gluten
  • the amount of damage to your small intestine
  • your age—symptoms can vary between young children and adults

People with celiac disease who have no symptoms can still develop complications from the disease over time if they do not get treatment.

What causes celiac disease?

Research suggests that celiac disease only happens to individuals who have particular genes. These genes are common and are carried by about one-third of the population. Individuals also have to be eating food that contains gluten to get celiac disease. Researchers do not know exactly what triggers celiac disease in people at risk who eat gluten over a long period of time. Sometimes the disease runs in families. About 10 to 20 percent of close relatives of people with celiac disease also are affected.3

Your chances of developing celiac disease increase when you have changes in your genes, or variants. Certain gene variants and other factors, such as things in your environment, can lead to celiac disease.

References

June 2016
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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 through its clearinghouses and education programs 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.