CHICAGO – At least three million Americans are affected by celiac disease, and many don’t even know it.

The average length of diagnosis for someone experiencing symptoms of the inherited autoimmune disorder is four years.

When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye, their immune system responds by attacking their small intestine and slowing the absorption of nutrients into the body.

Since May is Celiac Awareness month, WGN News Now spoke with Dr. Ritu Verma, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at the University of Chicago Medicine Celiac Disease Center, about the condition.

Effects

Verma says it can affect any part of your body and early diagnosis is important because people with celiac disease face long-term complications.

It can cause hair loss, thyroid issues, bone issues, liver disease, infertility, lymphoma, plus cause growth and weight issues in children.

Symptoms

The common symptoms of celiac disease are below:

In children:        

  • abdominal bloating and pain
  • chronic diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stool
  • iron-deficiency anemia
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • irritability and behavioral issues
  • dental enamel defects of the permanent teeth
  • delayed growth and puberty
  • short stature
  • failure to thrive
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

In Adults:

  • unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
  • fatigue
  • bone or joint pain
  • arthritis
  • osteoporosis or osteopenia (bone loss)
  • liver and biliary tract disorders (transaminitis, fatty liver, primary sclerosing cholangitis, etc.)
  • depression or anxiety
  • peripheral neuropathy (tingling, numbness or pain in the hands and feet)
  • seizures or migraines
  • missed menstrual periods
  • infertility or recurrent miscarriage
  • canker sores inside the mouth
  • dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy skin rash)

Screening

Verma advised people to get screened for celiac disease if they have symptoms. The process involves a a simple blood test that reveals if you have higher than normal levels of antibodies that view gluten as a threat.

She suggested anyone who has a family member with celiac disease get screened because it is a genetic condition.

Gluten-free diet

If you suspect you have celiac, Verma said you should consult your doctor before switching to a gluten-free diet. She also cautions believe in making your diet gluten-free just because it’s trendy and a seemingly healthy thing to do. “A gluten free diet is not always as healthy. It’s deficient of certain vitamins and grains. So you may not be doing yourself a favor by going on a gluten free diet if you don’t have celiac disease.” she said.

Verma added the food industry and restaurants still need more education regarding gluten-free and cross-contamination. “You can have a pizza pie that’s gluten-free but if you’ve made it in a place where there’s flour all over, you’ve cross-contaminated that,  ” said Verma. “Or if you cut it with the same cutter as you cut the regular pizza, there’s a problem.”

She suggested people who need a gluten-free diet work with a dietician and added that the gluten-free foods on the market today taste way better than they did years ago.

For more information on celiac disease contact the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.