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Celiac Disease in Kids: Signs and Symptoms

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
celiac disease

Believing that a gluten-free lifestyle is the healthiest option for their family, more parents are choosing a gluten-free diet for their children.

An estimated 1 percent of the population have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to react abnormally to gluten, which is a protein found in rye, barley and wheat, says pediatric gastroenterologist Maricruz Crespo, MD.

The rise of gluten-free products, coupled with a greater overall public awareness of what is known as wheat intolerance syndrome, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, has led some patients to self-diagnose themselves – and their children – with gluten intolerance. But having an upset stomach after eating gluten containing foods could mean the presence of celiac disease, Dr. Crespo says.

“Celiac disease is a genetic disorder,” Dr. Crespo says. “First degree relatives of patients with celiac disease have a one in 10 risk of developing the disease.”

Symptoms of the disease are often similar to those of parasitic and viral disease. They include, but are not limited to:

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

Celiac disease can also be asymptomatic, Dr. Crespo says. About 2.5 million of Americans are undiagnosed for celiac disease and are at risk of developing complications from the disease, she says.

“Celiac disease can be diagnosed in childhood or adulthood,” Dr. Crespo says.

How to Know if Your Child Has Celiac Disease

The only way to truly confirm a celiac diagnosis is through medical testing. If doctors suspect that celiac disease might be the cause of a patient's gastrointestinal discomfort, they will order a blood test, which screens for celiac antibodies. If that comes back positive, the patient should be referred to a pediatric gastroenterologist to confirm or exclude the diagnosis via biopsies of the small intestine, the organ mostly affected by the disease.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for celiac disease at this moment, Dr. Crespo says. The only way to manage the disease is 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 exposure can cause symptoms,” Dr. Crespo says.

Caution When Eating Out

Mobile apps can help parents and patients with their shopping and eating. But even with these devices, Dr. Crespo urges caution.

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

Cross-contamination can also cause severe symptoms and can interfere with the healing process.

Though the prevalence of wheat sensitivity may inspire some families to adopt a gluten-free diet, Dr. Crespo does not recommend this practice unless necessary.

“There is scarce evidence that a gluten-free diet offers any particular health benefit,” she says.

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The pediatric gastroenterology team at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital provides rapid access to care for infants and children of all ages with GI concerns. Our team of digestive health specialists focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and management of a wide range of digestive disorders.