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Celiac disease (also called celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is an autoimmune disease affecting the digestive tract. When people with celiac disease eat food with gluten—a type of protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats—it provokes an immune reaction that causes flattening and damage to the small protrusions (villi) in the small intestine that absorb nutrients.

The resulting smooth surface in the lining of the intestine inhibits the ability to digest and absorb nutrients in many, if not all, foods. As a result, people with untreated celiac disease can suffer from malnutrition and a host of symptoms caused by malnutrition. Thus, celiac disease is also classified as a disease of malabsorption.

The Digestive Tract

Diagram of total or simple mastectomy
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It is not known exactly why people with celiac disease react to gluten-containing foods in such a negative manner. If you have celiac disease, chances are that approximately 10% of your immediate family does, too. The disease can occur at any age. In some cases, symptoms of the disease do not emerge until after some form of trigger. Triggers can include an infection, pregnancy, severe stress, surgery, or physical injury. To prevent symptoms, a person with celiac disease must avoid foods containing gluten.

References:

American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/. Accessed March 9, 2006.

Berkow R. The Merck Manual of Medical Information. 17th ed. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc; 2000.

Collin P, Thorell L, Kaukinen K, Maki M. The safe threshold for gluten contamination in gluten-free products. Can trace amounts be accepted in the treatment of coeliac disease? Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2004;19:1277.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research website. Available at: http://www.mayo.edu/. Accessed March 9, 2006.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niddk.nih.gov/. Accessed March 9, 2006.

Rostom, A, Dube, C, Cranney, A, et al. Celiac disease. Summary, evidence report/technology assessment No 104. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2004.

Last reviewed September 2012 by Daus Mahnke, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.