Digestive and Gastrointestinal Conditions

Celiac Disease Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Not everyone with celiac disease will have symptoms. People who do have symptoms often confuse with other intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance.

The most common symptoms in children are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain and bloating
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Short stature/failure to gain weight (failure to thrive)
  • Delayed growth and puberty  
  • Lack of iron in the blood (anemia)
  • Feeling tired
  • Skin rashes (known as dermatitis herpetiformis) and mouth sores
  • Problems with the enamel of the permanent teeth
  • Feeling irritable

Sometimes, celiac disease symptoms do not show up until the person has a physical or emotional trauma or stressful event.

What causes celiac disease?

We do not yet know exactly what causes celiac disease. However, we do know that people with celiac disease inherit the gene for it from a parent. People with a first-degree relative (such as a parent, child or sibling) with celiac disease have a 3- to 10-fold increased risk of developing celiac disease. An estimated 1 in 133 people in the United States have celiac disease, although many may not know or have symptoms.

Although having this gene makes someone more likely to develop celiac disease, some people with the gene never develop it. Other genes, as well as environmental factors such as toxins, infections or stress, may also play a role. Celiac disease affects people of all heritages and races.

Although we don’t yet know why celiac disease starts, we do know how to manage this illness so your child can heal and live as normal a childhood as possible.

What are the risks and complications of celiac disease?

Because they are not getting the nutrients they need, children with celiac disease may not grow properly, may be tired or may lose weight. If celiac disease is not treated, it can lead to serious, long-term health problems, including:

  • Lack of iron in the blood (anemia)
  • Early development of brittle bones (osteoporosis) or low-bone density (osteopenia)
  • Short stature
  • Teeth enamel defects
  • Thyroid problems
  • Arthritis
  • Inability to get pregnant (infertility) and miscarriage
  • Lactose intolerance (cannot digest the natural sugar in milk)
  • Inability to absorb enough vitamins and minerals
  • Inability to properly digest food due to lack of stomach enzymes (pancreatic insufficiency)
  • Cancers in the stomach and other organs of the gastrointestinal system (esophagus, small and large intestine, and rectum)
  • Conditions of the brain and nervous system (such as epilepsy and migraines)

When people develop celiac disease at a later age, there is a greater risk of developing other autoimmune conditions and related health problems. Although some people do not have symptoms, they may still have the health conditions and damage listed earlier.

How is celiac disease diagnosed?

Because celiac disease symptoms often look like other digestive conditions, only a provider can evaluate and diagnosis your child with celiac disease.

To determine if your child has celiac disease, your Seattle Children’s provider will:

  1. Ask questions: The provider will ask you and your child questions about your child’s past health, any symptoms, your family’s health, any medicines your child is taking, any allergies and any other concerns you have about your child’s health.
  2. Do blood work: If the provider thinks your child may have celiac disease, they will order a blood test to check if your child shows high levels of antibodies to gluten.
  3. Do an endoscopy: If the results of the blood test show that your child has a high level of antibodies to other proteins in the intestinal lining, the provider may recommend testing a sample of tissue (called a biopsy) of the small intestine to determine accurately if your child has celiac disease. This procedure used to get this sample of the intestine is called an endoscopy.

Contact Us

To make an appointment with Seattle Children’s Gastroenterology and Hepatology Department, start by asking your child’s primary care doctor for a referral. If you have a referral, call 206-987-2521 to schedule your child’s appointment.