Celiac Disease in Children: Risks & Symptoms
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.
Children of any age, race or gender can develop celiac disease. However, there are some factors that can put a child at increased risk for celiac disease:
- 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, like 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.
The symptoms of celiac disease can vary, and they can appear at any age. Some people with celiac disease have no symptoms at all. In children, symptoms can appear as early as 6 months old. Irritability is a common symptom in children.
Other Symptoms Can Include:
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating and gas
- Damaged or discolored tooth enamel
- Skin rashes (known as dermatitis herpetiformis)
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Decreased appetite
- Delayed growth or puberty
- Thin bones or frequent fractures
- Failure to thrive
- Short stature
By the time these symptoms have appeared, some reversible damage to the child’s small intestine has already occurred. If you think your child may have celiac disease, contact your pediatrician immediately. He/she can order screening tests for celiac disease, or refer your child to a pediatric gastroenterologist.
Children with No Celiac Disease Symptoms
Some children are asymptomatic, meaning they show no outward signs or symptoms of celiac disease. For these children, it is even more critical to identify risk factors and get tested, even if the child appears to be healthy. This group of children typically represents those children with a family history of celiac disease.