Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is estimated to affect about one in 133 people in the U.S., including millions of children. It is currently one of the most undiagnosed disorders, partially because it is so poorly understood, and also because the symptoms of this disease can vary so widely. In fact, there are over 200 documented celiac disease symptoms.
With celiac disease, the body’s own defenses attack the absorbent wall of the small intestines whenever gluten is present. As a result, the digestive system is unable to absorb fat, protein and minerals properly—nutrients essential to overall health. Deprived of these nutrients, the body’s various systems are not adequately supported, and the person’s health begins to decline. In short, children and adults with celiac disease become malnourished, no matter how much or how well they eat. Some nutrients are still absorbed better than others, however, so symptoms of celiac disease can vary widely from person to person.
Celiac disease can develop any time in a person’s life, from infancy to adulthood, but it is quite common in children. Children may or may not show any signs of symptoms at all, or their symptoms may be subtle or unexpected. Some of the most common signs of celiac disease in children are listed below:
Gastrointestinal problems: The earliest sign of celiac disease in children is usually digestive issues. Many children exhibit vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation after exposure to gluten. Their stool may also appear fatty or discolored and have a foul smell. Not all children with celiac, however, have these symptoms.
Tooth defects: Poor calcium and vitamin D absorption can cause tooth discoloration, damaged enamel and susceptibility to cavities, especially in the child’s adult teeth.
Anemia and fatigue: Poor iron absorption as a result of intestinal damage can cause anemia in children, which in turn can leave them constantly fatigued, pale and prone to fainting.
Failure to thrive: From infancy to later childhood, many young children exhibit growth and weight gain issues. Babies may show a failure to thrive, and older children may have stunted growth, problems with gaining weight and delayed development.
Anxious and irritable behavior: Starved of important nutrients that the body can’t absorb, a child’s brain can also be affected by celiac disease, leading to some mental and behavioral issues, including irritability, trouble sleeping, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
Skin rash: Called dermatitis herpetiformis, this skin rash is associated with celiac disease. While it rarely occurs in young children, it does happen and can be a common symptom in teens. The rash is made up of itchy skin blisters and can appear anywhere, but is most common on the elbows, knees, back, torso and even inside the mouth.
Other Symptoms you may notice:
- Kidney stones
- Poor appetite
- Delayed puberty
- Lactose intolerance
- Bruising easily
- Bone loss
Note that by the time these symptoms appear, your child’s small intestine have already been damaged, so it’s important to get your child to the pediatrician right away if you suspect celiac disease.
The only way to effectively treat symptoms of celiac disease is to have a zero-tolerance policy on the consumption of gluten. Even trace amounts from cross-contamination can damage the intestine and undo weeks of healing. During the healing process, which can take six months or more depending on how extensive the damage is, extra nutritional supplements may be needed.
Managing celiac disease is a lifelong process and requires a strict commitment to a gluten-free diet. Children in particular may have a hard time accepting their new dietary restrictions, but will soon show signs of improvement and will surely enjoy living their life symptom-free, with more clarity, energy and health than they ever did while eating gluten.