This week it is Coeliac Awareness Week so we wanted to share with you a few key pieces of information and symptoms to look out for if you think you may be affected by the condition.
What is Coeliac Disease?
Coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease, which is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to oats. For people with coeliac disease, eating gluten damages the lining of the gut, which prevents normal digestion and absorption of food. There are serious health problems that can be associated with coeliac disease including osteoporosis, cancer of the small bowel and increased risk of other autoimmune diseases.
What are the symptoms we should be looking out for?
Symptoms of coeliac disease range from mild to severe and can vary between individuals. Symptoms can include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, anaemia, mouth ulcers, sudden or unexpected weight loss and skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis).
Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is the skin manifestation of coeliac disease. It appears as red raised patches often with blisters that itch, sting or burn and can burst with scratching. It commonly occurs on the elbows, forearms, knees and buttocks, although it may occur anywhere on the body. It affects around 1 in 3,300 people. It can appear at any age but is most common in people aged between 50-69.
Even though people with DH may not have any gut symptoms, they may have the gut damage which is associated with coeliac disease so they should be tested for coeliac disease.
What should people do if they suspect they might have coeliac disease?
The first step is to discuss symptoms with a GP who can take a simple blood test to check for antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the body in response to eating gluten. It is essential to continue to eat a diet that contains gluten before and during the testing process, otherwise the test won’t work. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommend having gluten in more than one meal every day for at least six weeks prior to testing.
If the blood test result is positive, the next step is a GP referral to a hospital specialist (gastroenterologist) for a gut biopsy. This is a simple procedure performed in outpatients which looks for damage in the gut that is typical in coeliac disease. The test involves passing a thin flexible tube (an endoscope) through the mouth and down to the upper part of the small intestine where a tiny sample of gut lining is collected.
How is coeliac disease treated?
A gluten free diet for life is the only treatment for coeliac disease. Once someone is diagnosed, their GP should refer them to a dietitian to help guide them through the initial steps of changing their diet.
- Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or an intolerance but an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten.
- Coeliac disease affects at least 1 in 100 people in the UK and in Europe; however, only about 30% of people with the condition are currently clinically diagnosed.
- Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to oats.
- Obvious sources of gluten include foods that contain traditional flour such as, breads, pasta, cereals, cakes and biscuits. Gluten is also found in many favourite foods such as fish fingers, sausages, gravies, sauces, stock cubes, soy sauce and even in some chocolate.