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Signs Your Child May Have Celiac Disease

Posted 4/12/2017 by UHBlog

Do you know how to recognize the symptoms of celiac disease? Ask us.

Signs Your Child May Have Celiac Disease

Believing that a gluten-free lifestyle is the healthiest option for their family, more parents than ever are trading in their children's morning bowl of cereal for gluten-free bars. Yet while 11 percent of Americans follow a gluten-free diet, only around 1 percent of the population suffer from celiac disease, says pediatric gastroenterologist Maricruz Crespo, MD.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to react abnormally to gluten, a protein found in rye, barley and wheat. The rise of gluten-free products – coupled with a greater overall public awareness of what is known as wheat intolerance syndrome (sometimes called non-celiac gluten sensitivity) – has led some people to self-diagnose themselves – and their children – with gluten intolerance, Dr. Crespo says.

But if your child keeps complaining of an upset stomach after eating gluten-containing foods, like bagels or pasta, it’s a good idea to have him or her checked for celiac disease, says Dr. Crespo. This is especially true if someone else in the family has been diagnosed with the disease.

“Celiac disease is a genetic disorder,” she says. “First-degree relatives of patients with celiac have a higher risk of developing the disease.”

Symptoms of the disease are often similar to those of parasitic and viral diseases and can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Pale stools
  • Foul-smelling stools
  • Weight loss
  • Delayed growth
  • Anemia

According to Dr. Crespo, celiac disease can also be asymptomatic. In fact, 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk of developing complications from the disease, she says.

“You can get diagnosed as a child, or you can live your whole life without it and then get the diagnosis as an adult,” Dr. Crespo says.

The only way to know is through a blood test, which screens for celiac antibodies. If that comes back positive, your child’s small intestine will be biopsied. When people with celiac eat gluten, their immune system reacts by attacking the lining of the small intestine, making it the organ most affected by the disease. The biopsy helps determine whether your child has the disease.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for celiac disease, Dr. Crespo says, but it can be managed by avoiding all gluten-containing products. That’s why Dr. Crespo strongly recommends nutritional counseling for anyone recently diagnosed with the disease.

“Even a very small amount of gluten can cause a flare-up,” she says.

Mobile apps – like ipiit and Find Me Gluten Free – and websites can also help you and your child when shopping and dining out. But even with these devices, Dr. Crespo urges caution.

“Restaurants don’t always understand what celiac disease is,” she says. “They might think their product is gluten free but it has been exposed to gluten-containing areas.”

Cross-contamination can also trigger flare-ups and interfere with the healing process.

Although celiac disease and wheat intolerance syndrome are often referred to in the same breath, it’s important to remember that they are entirely different diagnoses, Dr. Crespo says. While those with celiac disease need to read every label carefully, Dr. Crespo doesn't recommend that parents of children with a gluten sensitivity overhaul their family’s entire diet.

“Gluten-free is an expensive diet, and it’s not necessary if you don’t have celiac or a wheat allergy,” she says.

Maricruz Crespo, MD, is a pediatric gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Crespo or any other doctor online.

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