What is Celiac Disease?

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the small intestine due to the consumption of gluten, a protein found in certain grains called wheat, rye, and barley. Damage to the small intestine lining can prevent children from absorbing nutrients from food effectively and can affect growth and development.

Celiac disease can develop at any age and is an autoimmune disease that can run in families. Signs and symptoms can include abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, joint pain, and poor growth.

Currently, there is no cure for celiac disease. The treatment is a strict, life-long gluten-free diet.

Signs & Symptoms of Celiac Disease


The signs and symptoms of celiac disease in children and adults are not similar.

Children usually have digestive problems and other signs and symptoms. A pediatric specialist can examine a child with digestive signs and confirm a celiac disease diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of celiac disease in children include:

  • Gastrointestinal (digestive) signs and symptoms:
    • Abdominal pain
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Constipation
    • Gas
    • Bloating
  • Non-gastrointestinal signs and symptoms – are mostly related to problems absorbing nutrients from food effectively. Non-gastrointestinal signs and symptoms include:
    • Poor weight gain
    • Weight loss
    • Below average height
    • Low energy/fatigue
    • Change in behavior.
    • Joint pain.
    • Anemia, usually from iron deficiency
    • Mouth sores
    • Dermatitis herpetiformis - itchy, blistery skin rash (more common in adults)
    • Headaches

What Causes Celiac Disease?


The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown. Celiac is an autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten results in the mounting of an immune system response that attacks and causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In these patients, eating gluten causes damage to the villi or small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and allow for nutrient absorption. Given this, nutrients are not properly absorbed into the body, leading to malnutrition and significant GI and non-GI-related symptoms.

Scientists are looking into possible causes of celiac disease, including alterations in gut bacteria, viral infections, and other potential causes.

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

Risk factors include genetic factors, diet, and other autoimmune diseases or chromosomal disorders, resulting in an increased chance of developing celiac disease.

  • Genetics. Having a family member with celiac disease. Five to 10 percent of children with a family history of celiac disease also develop the disease.
  • Race. Celiac disease is more common in Caucasians than in people of other racial groups in the United States.
  • Sex. Celiac disease diagnosis is more common in females than in males.
  • Other diseases. Type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease.
  • Chromosomal disorders. Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and Williams syndrome



Following a strict lifelong gluten-free diet results in healing of the damage to the small intestine and allows for symptom resolution and avoidance of complications. If this autoimmune condition is left untreated, complications of celiac disease may include:

  • Malabsorption – leads to malnutrition, which can impact growth and development.
  • Bone weakening - malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D can lead to a softening of bones in children and a loss of bone density in adults.
  • Dental enamel defects
  • Cancer – untreated celiac disease can increase the risk of developing certain cancers, including intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancer
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Celiac Disease Care

Pediatric gastroenterologists at NewYork-Presbyterian care for children and adolescents with pediatric digestive diseases and autoimmune disorders including celiac disease. Our teams include pediatric gastroenterologists, pediatric allergists and immunology specialists, dieticians and social workers who work together to diagnose the child’s condition and customize an effective treatment plan to help them improve as quickly as possible. Learn more about treatment for children with celiac disease. Contact us to make an appointment.