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Health: Signs and symptoms of celiac disease

In the U.S., two million men and women suffer from celiac disease, meaning they are unable to eat gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – because it causes an inflammatory reaction in their small intestines.

This inflammation can cause damage to the intestine’s lining and prevent the body from absorbing important vitamins and nutrients. If left unchecked, celiac disease can cause weight loss, bloating and diarrhea as well as damage to organs, including the heart, bones, kidney and brain.

There is no cure for celiac disease, but eliminating gluten from your diet can reduce symptoms and give intestines an opportunity to heal.

Signs and symptoms of celiac disease vary from patient to patient. Some people feel no symptoms at all. In fact, 70 percent of people with celiac disease go undiagnosed.

So, how do you know if you have celiac disease? Here are some of the signs and symptoms:

• Diarrhea, abdominal bloating and weight loss. These are some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease.

• Constipation and obesity. While somewhat counterintuitive, it’s important to remember that not all patients exhibit typical symptoms.

• Anemia. Damage to the small intestines might inhibit the absorption of iron, a major component of the body’s red blood cells.

• Headaches and numbness/tingling of extremities. Some celiac patients exhibit neurological symptoms.  

• Acid reflux and heartburn. As many as 30 percent of celiac patients have reflux symptoms. In general, celiac disease sufferers have significantly higher rates of gastroesophageal reflux disease.

• Dermatitis herpetiformis. An itchy, blistering rash that appears most frequently on the arms, knees, trunk and head may be a symptom of celiac disease.

• Joint pain/arthritis. The most common locations for joint pain for celiac disease patients are the knees, back, hips, wrists and shoulders.

• Dental enamel defects and bone disorders. Because of poor absorption of calcium and vitamin D, patients might develop issues with their dental enamel and thinning of the bones. 

• Elevated liver enzymes. This can be a common finding for celiac patients. An improvement is often noted in abnormal liver numbers when patients are on a gluten-free diet. 

• Infertility. In research studies, about 4 percent to 8 percent of patients with unexplained infertility have been found to have undiagnosed cases of celiac disease.

It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional if you are suffering from any of the signs and symptoms above. They can help put you on the right track toward treating celiac disease and feeling better.

Dr. David Labowitz is a gastroenterologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

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