Signs and Symptoms of Celiac Disease

A woman holds her hands to her stomach

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Celiac disease is a chronic autoimmune disorder. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten (a protein in wheat), their immune system attacks the small intestine. These attacks cause damage to the small intestine that prevents nutrients from being absorbed.

Celiac disease can be tricky to diagnose because it affects people differently. Some people develop celiac disease as a child. For others, the condition doesn’t appear until adulthood. You can experience different symptoms depending on your age. And while most do, some people don’t have any symptoms.

Symptoms may occur in the digestive system or other parts of the body. Digestive symptoms often include bloating, gas, constipation, and abdominal pain. Other symptoms include fatigue, bone or joint pain, anxiety, and missed menstrual periods.

The symptoms vary from one person to the next and may come and go. However, symptoms typically improve—and may even go away—once a person adopts a gluten-free diet.

Editor's Note: There are more than 200 known symptoms of celiac disease.

Digestive Symptoms

While digestive symptoms are more common in children than in adults, you may experience the following symptoms of celiac disease at any age:

  • Bloating: This is a feeling of fullness or swelling in your abdomen.
  • Diarrhea: Adults with celiac disease can experience loose, watery stools. Children with celiac disease can experience chronic diarrhea, meaning they have diarrhea three or more times a day for at least four weeks.
  • Constipation: Constipation is defined as having fewer than two bowel movements a week. Stools may also be hard, dry, lumpy, or difficult to pass.
  • Gas: Gas inside your digestive tract is made of air and other gasses. Gas leaves your body through your mouth (belching) or your anus (fart).
  • Steatorrhea: This is the term used to describe stool that has too much fat. The stool is typically pale and foul-smelling.
  • Nausea or vomiting: Nausea is feeling that you need to release your stomach contents by vomiting. You may also vomit.
  • Pain in the abdomen: You may feel discomfort or pain in the abdomen, which is the area between your chest and hips.

Mood Symptoms

Depression and anxiety can be a symptom of celiac disease for both children and adults.

Depression can majorly alter your mood, causing sadness, hopelessness, or irritability. If you are depressed, you may also have a loss of interest in your hobbies. To be diagnosed with depression, the mood changes must last for at least two weeks.

Anxiety can cause a persistent feeling of dread. You may also feel irritable, restless, and easily fatigued.

Children in particular might also experience mood changes that make them feel more irritable, impatient, and annoyed.

Skin Symptoms

Both adults and children can experience changes to their skin if they have celiac disease.

Dermatitis herpetiformis is an itchy, blistering skin rash that people with celiac disease can develop. It affects 2% to 3% of children and 10% to 20% of adults with untreated celiac disease. It usually appears on the elbows, knees, buttocks, back, or scalp.

Oral Symptoms

Canker sores can be a symptom of celiac disease at any age. Canker sores are small, round, painful sores in your mouth. They are typically on the inside of your cheek, under your tongue, or in the back of your throat. 

Other mouth-related symptoms of celiac disease include a dry mouth and a tongue that is red, smooth, and shiny.

Nervous System Symptoms

Celiac disease can manifest in nervous system symptoms, including:

  • Headaches: A headache is a pain in the head, neck, or scalp. Pain ranges from mild to severe.
  • Seizures: These are sudden, uncontrolled body movements. Symptoms include loss of muscle control, shaking, changes in emotion, and loss of awareness. Children might also experience a lack of muscle coordination.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: Peripheral neuropathy is a group of conditions that involve nerve damage. You may feel tingling or numbness in the hands, feet, or limbs. This is a rare presentation of celiac disease for children.

Reproductive Symptoms

Men and women with celiac disease may experience infertility. This means you’re unable to become pregnant or get someone pregnant after trying for at least one year.

Women might also experience repeated miscarriages.

Women and girls might also experience missed periods and delayed starts to their periods.

Blood Symptoms

Adults and children with celiac disease might exhibit anemia. Anemia develops when your blood doesn’t create enough healthy blood cells. Anemia can make you feel tired or weak.

Editor’s Note: Celiac disease can be categorized into three different types based on symptoms:

Classical celiac disease: There are signs and symptoms, such as diarrhea or steatorrhea, your intestines aren’t absorbing nutrients properly (malabsorption).

Non-classical celiac disease: There may be mild digestive issues but no clear signs of malabsorption. Symptoms can be wide-ranging, affecting other body parts.

Silent celiac disease: There are no signs and symptoms, but there is still damage to the intestines. 

Symptoms in Children

Because children with celiac disease are unable to absorb nutrients during their developmental years, they may have symptoms different from adults, such as:

  • Delayed puberty
  • Less weight gain than usual for their age
  • Weight loss
  • Slowed growth
  • Shorter height
  • Tooth enamel damage

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

Most people with celiac disease have one or more symptoms before they are diagnosed. If you have any symptoms of celiac disease, especially ones that don’t go away or keep coming back, talk to a healthcare provider about a potential celiac disease diagnosis.

While they won’t diagnose you on your symptoms alone since symptoms overlap with those of so many other conditions, the provider will do a physical exam to check for signs of celiac disease, ask about your family health history, and consider your own medical history. They may also order tests like bloodwork or biopsies.

Even if you don’t have symptoms, you should also see a healthcare provider if someone in your immediate family has celiac disease. Since you are at increased risk for the disease, you should get screened for it.

You should also keep up with all of your children’s regular healthcare appointments so their development and oral health can be monitored. If it seems like your child is not developing normally, you should bring them to a healthcare provider.

A Quick Review 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that damages the small intestine. The reaction is triggered after you eat gluten. There are many possible symptoms of celiac disease, and they differ from one person to the next. Digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea are more common among children, but it is possible for someone of any age to experience them. It is also possible to have celiac disease symptoms that affect your mood, skin, mouth, teeth, and reproductive system. Because celiac disease symptoms are diverse and overlap with so many other conditions, diagnosis can be difficult, but it is important to get a diagnosis to prevent any complications.

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  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression.

  9. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

  10. Celiac Disease Foundation. Oral health.

  11. MedlinePlus. Canker sores.

  12. MedlinePlus. Headaches - danger signs.

  13. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Peripheral neuropathy.

  14. Pacitto A, Paglino A, Di Genova L, et al. Celiac disease presenting with peripheral neuropathy in children: A case report. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017l;14(7):785. doi:10.3390/ijerph14070785

  15. MedlinePlus. Male infertility.

  16. MedlinePlus. Infertility

  17. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is anemia?

  18. MedlinePlus. Failure to thrive

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