Health 101: Celiac Disease

Most kids with celiac disease -- a serious digestive disorder -- have never been diagnosed. Although the condition was once considered rare in this country, improved diagnostic tests have shown that it actually affects about one in 130 people -- including toddlers. Unfortunately, both doctors and parents often overlook celiac disease because they don't realize how common it is, and the symptoms are easily mistaken for other problems. Here, we've got common questions about this often confusing condition.

What is celiac disease?

A. It's a genetic disease of the digestive system that's triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, as well as rye and barley. "Parents sometimes use the words allergy or intolerance to help other people understand celiac disease, but it's actually an autoimmune disease and not an allergy," says Nanci Pittman, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. When a child with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, her immune system attacks the lining of her small intestine so that she's unable to absorb all the nutrients in food. As a result, she may stop growing, become malnourished, and develop a variety of serious consequences such as anemia, chronic diarrhea, and osteoporosis.

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