Our thanks to Dr Chris Steele for his contribution to our on-air report which you can hear via the radio player on this page. Our thanks also to Coeliac UK for the information below.
What is Coeliac Disease? It is a autoimmune, life-long inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. In simple terms, it’s an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
What reaction does gluten cause in the body of person living with Coeliac ? The lining of the small intestine is covered in finger like projections called villi which increase the absorptive area of the gut. When a person with the coeliac condition eats gluten, the lining of the gut becomes inflamed causing the villi to become flattened. This reduces the ability to absorb the nutrients from food properly.
Symptoms? There are a range of symptoms including constant mouth ulcers, crippling fatigue, stomach pain, regular bouts of diarrhoea, anaemia, weight loss and in children, slow growth and development.
How many people are affected? Figures indicate that the incidence is as high as 1 in 100. Individual symptoms vary, meaning the condition often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Other conditions associated with coeliac. Dermatitis Herpetiformis (a blistering skin eruption that can affect any part of the body but is often found on the knees and elbows), Type 1 Diabetes and thyroid disease. Other related conditions are those which occur as a result of the body's inability to absorb nutrients, such as anaemia.
Risks/complications Left undiagnosed, coeliac has been shown to lead to a higher probability of a patient developing osteoporosis and lymphoma (cancer) of the small intestine. Osteoporosis occurs as a result of the body's inability to absorb sufficient levels of calcium.
How is coeliac disease diagnosed? Specific blood tests indicate a person may have the condition. Diagnosis is then confirmed by a biopsy of the small intestine. Before starting a gluten-free diet, please consult your doctor and/or dietitian.
The condition is most frequently diagnosed in adults, although children are often diagnosed when weaned onto solid foods. It has a genetic component and often becomes active for the first time after physical stress, for example, childbirth, pregnancy or surgery. Symptoms may not appear until later in life, which is why most people with the coeliac condition are diagnosed between 30 and 45 years of age.
Treatment. Currently, the only treatment is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. This allows the intestine to recover and for food to be absorbed normally. Many gluten-free foods are available from major supermarkets or pharmacists. In certain parts of the country a small range of gluten free products are available on prescription.
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