Originally believed to be a "rare childhood syndrome," celiac disease — an immune reaction to eating gluten — is now known to be a common genetic disorder affecting people all over the world, including more than 2 million people in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The symptoms of celiac disease are varied, depending on the person's age and the degree of damage to the small intestine. Some people with celiac disease, in fact, may have no symptoms but can still develop complications of the disease over time. Meanwhile, Circle of Moms member Taryn A. says for her mother, the disease manifests itself in diarrhea, while her sister gets intensely constipated, and her cousin gets rashes all over her body. "You'd think that since they're mother and daughter their symptoms would be alike, but in actuality they're exactly opposite."
The risk in going untreated is that the longer a person goes undiagnosed, the greater the chance of developing long-term complications like malnutrition, liver diseases, and cancers, NIH says. To help you figure out whether your child should be tested for celiac disease, here we've summarized the condition's four common signs.
1. Genetic Indicators Exist
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. Consequently, people with celiac disease — or their relatives — tend to have other diseases in which the immune system attacks the body's healthy cells and tissues. For instance, the connection between celiac disease and type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison's disease or Sjögren's syndrome may be genetic, according to the NIH.
Mom Kathy recommends that if you suspect your child might have the disease, you should look into getting genetic testing for yourself and the father, especially because "celiac seems to take no classic look with anyone," and "because celiac is highly genetic and highly familial." She says: "If you guys carry the gene, then there is a huge clue about your baby. If you don't, then there is no possible way she could have this disease."
2. Slower Growth and Development
When people who have celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system triggers a reaction in their small intestine. Over time, this creates inflammation that damages the small intestine's lining and causes malabsorption of nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Eventually, no matter how much food a person eats, they become malnourished. And when this happens to children, it can affect their growth and development. Mom Tonya says that in addition to suffering from diarrhea and fevers, one of her son's symptoms was "failure to thrive (he is very small for his age)."
3. Tummy Aches
In addition to having an inflamed small intestine, or perhaps as a result of it, people with the disease often suffer from tummy aches. Claire says her 7-year-old daughter has had tummy problems since she was one, while Lisa C. says her three children had stomach pains and also frequently threw up.
With younger children, it might be difficult to determine when their tummy hurts and whether they have celiac disease, Christine says. Kids may be "too young to tell you if she feels the slightest bit of discomfort as a result" of eating gluten. But parents can "pick up on even little things, like being more gassy than usual, or the mood swings that occur" because of the stomach discomfort, she says.
4. Toilet Issues
There also can be toilet troubles, several Circle of Moms members whose children have celiac disease advise. Laurie's daughter "had persistent diarrhea her whole life and GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease), but once she stuck to a gluten-free diet "her diarrhea has disappeared and she seems happier and less gassy."
Jennifer L.'s son had similar issues. She says he "never had a normal BM until he was gluten-free." She adds: "My son at almost 3 now sleeps through the night most of the time, but if he gets some gluten he is up in the night with cramps."
Remember, it's really hard to diagnose celiac disease just from the symptoms, which is why if you suspect your child might have the disease, you need to talk to your pediatrician about having a blood test to measure the level of autoantibodies, Taryn A. says. If that comes back positive, an endoscopy can confirm the diagnosis, and your pediatrician then can prescribe dietary changes, Circle of Moms members conclude.