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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.

Learn more about celiac disease here.

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 as 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 kids 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 can include:

  • Anemia
  • Bloating and gas
  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation
  • Damaged or discolored tooth enamel
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin rash (known as dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Poor weight gain
  • Vomiting

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

Testing Children for Celiac Disease

If you think your child could have celiac disease, it is extremely important that you have them tested by a doctor and keep them on a normal, gluten-containing diet throughout the testing process . It is likely that the celiac disease tests could be inaccurate if the child is on a gluten-free diet .The celiac disease testing process begins with a simple blood test. Learn more about celiac disease testing here.

If the Celiac Disease Test is Positive

If your child is diagnosed with celiac disease, Beyond Celiac will be with you every step of the way. Here are additional resources to guide you through a diagnosis:

If the Celiac Disease Test is Negative

If your child tests negative for celiac disease, but you think that he/she is really having trouble with gluten, talk to your child’s pediatrician about non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’). Gluten sensitivity causes symptoms similar to celiac disease, but it doesn’t result in intestinal damage. To diagnose gluten sensitivity, doctors must first eliminate celiac disease and wheat allergy as possibilities. Then, an elimination diet is done to determine which foods (if any) are causing symptoms. Learn more about gluten sensitivity here.

Additional Resources

Beyond Celiac offers many free resources for kids and parents affected by celiac disease.

Think you may have celiac disease?

Symptoms Checklist