Coeliac disease (British English) or celiac disease (American English) is a long-term autoimmune disorder, primarily affecting the small intestine, where individuals develop intolerance to gluten, present in foods such as wheat, rye and barley. Classic symptoms include gastrointestinal problems such as chronic diarrhoea, abdominal distention, malabsorption, loss of appetite, and among children failure to grow normally. This often begins between six months and two years of age. Non-classic symptoms are more common, especially in people older than two years. There may be mild or absent gastrointestinal symptoms, a wide number of symptoms involving any part of the body, or no obvious symptoms. Coeliac disease was first described in childhood; however, it may develop at any age. It is associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes mellitus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, among others.
Coeliac disease is caused by a reaction to gluten, a group of various proteins found in wheat and in other grains such as barley and rye. Moderate quantities of oats, free of contamination with other gluten-containing grains, are usually tolerated. The occurrence of problems may depend on the variety of oat. It occurs more often in people who are genetically predisposed. Upon exposure to gluten, an abnormal immune response may lead to the production of several different autoantibodies that can affect a number of different organs. In the small bowel, this causes an inflammatory reaction and may produce shortening of the villi lining the small intestine (villous atrophy). This affects the absorption of nutrients, frequently leading to anaemia.
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Diagnosis is typically made by a combination of blood antibody tests and intestinal biopsies, helped by specific genetic testing. Making the diagnosis is not always straightforward.About 10% of the time, the autoantibodies in the blood are negative, and many people have only minor intestinal changes with normal villi. People may have severe symptoms and they may be investigated for years before a diagnosis is achieved. Increasingly, the diagnosis is being made in people without symptoms, as a result of screening. Evidence regarding the effects of screening, however, is not sufficient to determine its usefulness. While the disease is caused by a permanent intolerance to gluten proteins, it is distinct from wheat allergy, which is much more rare.
The only known effective treatment is a strict lifelong gluten-free diet, which leads to recovery of the intestinal lining (mucous membrane), improves symptoms, and reduces the risk of developing complications in most people. If untreated, it may result in cancers such as intestinal lymphoma, and a slightly increased risk of early death. Rates vary between different regions of the world, from as few as 1 in 300 to as many as 1 in 40, with an average of between 1 in 100 and 1 in 170 people. It is estimated that 80% of cases remain undiagnosed, usually because of minimal or absent gastrointestinal complaints and lack of knowledge of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. Coeliac disease is slightly more common in women than in men.
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At present, the only effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. No medication exists that prevents damage or prevents the body from attacking the gut when gluten is present. Strict adherence to the diet helps the intestines heal, leading to resolution of all symptoms in most cases and, depending on how soon the diet is begun, can also eliminate the heightened risk of osteoporosis and intestinal cancer and in some cases sterility. The diet can be cumbersome; failure to comply with the diet may cause relapse.