Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease specifically damages the surface of the intestinal lining. Normally the wall is covered with millions of tiny finger shaped growths called villi. Their job is to provide as much surface area as possible in order to help digest food efficiently.

Celiac disease results in both inflammation of the gut and damage to the intestine which in turn causes the villi to flatten. Inflammation is an immune response where the body reacts to an irritant, infection or injury. It is distinguished by swelling, warmth, redness and pain.

This means that sufferers of celiac disease are not able to digest food properly and as such the body does not receive all the nutrients it needs from food. This leads to problems such as diarrhoea and weight loss.

The symptoms and severity of celiac disease vary depending on the person. Because of this, the disease can be grouped into one of three types based on the symptoms experienced. It is important to note that independently, none of these symptoms are characteristic of celiac disease as they are present in other intestinal conditions.

In silent celiac disease the individual will experience very mild symptoms or even none at all. Unfortunately the condition still leads to damage to the small intestine as well as long term complications.

With minor celiac disease the individual might experience a variety of minor symptoms which stop and begin again and can appear completely unrelated to food and digestion. Common symptoms include indigestion, bloating, loss of appetite, bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, weight loss, mild stomach pain, loss of co-ordination, mouth ulcers, possible hair loss in adults and tingling in the feet or hands.

In major celiac disease, some of the symptoms defined above might be experienced in addition to more severe problems which are as a result of the body not properly absorbing nutrients from food. More severe symptoms include stomach cramps and spasms, the sudden onset of diarrhoea, swelling of extremities as fluid builds up, and toxic smelling stools which contain high amounts of solid fat, making them difficult to flush down the toilet.

A type of blistering, itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis found predominantly on the elbows and knees, is common amongst people with celiac disease. As many as twenty-five percent of celiac sufferers get the rash which can also be found on the buttocks and other parts of the body. It is not really a symptom of celiac disease in itself although it is thought that the rash arises as a result of gluten in the diet and like celiac disease can clear up by removing gluten form the diet. However it generally does not clear up as quickly as other symptoms of celiac such as the diarrhoea and medications may be needed to cure the rash.

Some of the long term complications that could arise if celiac disease is not managed effectively are anaemia (iron deficiency), osteoporosis, growth defects, dietary deficiencies, infertility and an increased propensity to some types of cancers.

Malnourishment can occur in the severest cases because of the lack of critical nutrients and can signify that the body is not capable of functioning normally or that it cannot recover from infections and wounds. Confusion, dizziness and fatigue, do arise if the malnutrition is severe enough and there is a tendency for muscles to degrade combined with a difficulty in keeping warm. Stunted growth and delayed development happens commonly in children.

There is a higher risk of developing osteoporosis which is a condition whereby the bones become thin, brittle and weak as gluten causes damage to the intestine and ultimately prevents enough nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D from being absorbed into the bones.

If any of these symptoms are visible, celiac disease should be the topic of discussion for the patient and a qualified healthcare provider. If an individual experiences no symptoms but is considered to be in a high risk category, testing for celiac should still be considered.

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