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Celiac Disease Symptoms in Children

It was once believed that celiac disease was a childhood illness that could be outgrown. We now know that celiac disease affects men, women and children of all ages and races. And, unfortunately, celiac disease cannot be outgrown; it is a lifelong condition.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease that affects nearly 3 million Americans. People with celiac disease cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, the body sees it as a “foreign invader” and launches an attack on the body, leaving healthy tissue damaged. This attack damages the small intestine and flattens the villi, which are fingerlike projections that absorb nutrients from food. The gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment available for celiac disease.

Risk Factors

Children of any age, race or gender can develop celiac disease. However, there are some factors that can put a child at increased risk:

  • A Biological Relative with Celiac Disease Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease, so it is more common in those with a family history of the condition. Learn more about celiac disease in families here.
  • Some Autoimmune Conditions Having an autoimmune disorder makes you more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases, such as celiac disease.
  • HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 Genes 95% of people with celiac disease have either or both of the HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 genes. Having one or both of these genes does not mean that you will definitely develop celiac disease. Having the genes simply means a person is at-risk for celiac disease.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Children

Symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person and can begin at any age. Identifying celiac disease in children can be difficult because irritability is one of the most common symptoms for kids. Additionally, only 20-30% of kids with celiac disease will have stomach symptoms.

Common celiac disease symptoms in children include:

  • Decreased appetite Children and toddlers can be picky eaters, but this problem can be made worse in children with celiac disease. In addition to not wanting to eat certain foods, kids with celiac disease experience discomfort (or worse) due the their inability to eat gluten.
  • Failure to thrive/delayed growth or puberty “Failure to thrive” is a term used to describe children who are far behind their peers in height and weight. Children who fail to thrive are usually much shorter or smaller than other kids their age. As many as 10% of children with no cause for delayed growth may have celiac disease. Teenagers that fail to thrive might not experience the normal body changes that occur with puberty. Learn more about failure to thrive here.
  • Swollen belly Toddlers and young children with celiac disease may have a protruding “potbelly” or distended abdomen.

Other symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anemia
  • Bloating and gas
  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation
  • Damaged or discolored tooth enamel
  • Delayed growth or puberty
  • Fatigue
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Poor weight gain
  • Skin rashes (known as dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Thin bones or frequent fractures
  • Vomiting

It is important to note that nearly 75% of children with celiac disease are overweight at diagnosis.

Think you may have celiac disease?

Symptoms Checklist
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