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What is coeliac disease? 

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease characterised by an inappropriate immune response to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, similar proteins are found in barley and rye and to a lesser extent in oats. This response leads to inflammation of the small intestine and to damage and destruction of the villi that line the intestinal wall. The villi are projections, small tissue folds that increase the surface area of the intestine and allow nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fluids, and electrolytes to be absorbed into the body. When a susceptible person is exposed to gluten, their body produces autoantibodies that act against constituents of the intestinal villi. As long as the person continues to be exposed to the proteins, they will continue to produce these autoantibodies. When villi are damaged or destroyed, the body is much less capable of absorbing food including iron and vitamins. They may begin to develop symptoms associated with malnutrition and malabsorption. Malnutrition causes weight loss in adults and growth delay and failure to gain weight in children. Malabsorption causes diarrhoea and foul smelling bowel motions that float and have a greasy appearance because of the unabsorbed fats and oils in them.

Found throughout the world, coeliac disease is most prevalent in those of European descent. A recent Australian study found that the prevalence of coeliac disease in the Australian population may be as high as 1 in 70 people, though this is likely to be an overestimate as diagnosis was not confirmed by biopsy in all cases. The majority of people in this study were undiagnosed and had mild or no symptoms. Another recent UK study found a prevalence of diagnosed cases of coeliac disease of 1 in 420 people and cites three studies in the UK in different areas which found a total prevalence of diagnosed and undiagnosed coeliac disease of about 1 in 100 people. Coeliac disease can affect people of any age but is more common in infants and in those in their 30s and 40s. About 20% of those with coeliac disease are over 60 years old. It is somewhat more common in women than men. The development of coeliac disease is thought to be due to an inherited tendency that is triggered by an environmental, emotional, or physical event although the exact mechanism is not fully understood. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, about 5-15% of first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) of a coeliac disease patient will also have the condition.


Last Review Date: June 4, 2017