Nearly 40,000 Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, the protein in grains like wheat, barley and rye.

With celiac disease, also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, celiac sprue, and non-tropical sprue, the protein behaves like a toxin, damaging the villi.

The villi are small projections from the wall of the small intestine that absorb nutrients from food. As a result, a child with damaged villi is unable to absorb the nutrition needed for proper growth in weight and height and can experience malnutrition.

Symptoms of this autoimmune disease can occur at any age, after gluten is introduced into the diet. Soon after the introduction of solid foods, an infant with celiac disease can experience diarrhea, stomach pains and stop gaining weight or showing a 'failure to thrive'.

Older kids can have symptoms that include diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal discomfort and bloating, or sore skin rashes. These painful skin rashes usually show up around the buttocks, knees and elbows.

To diagnose for celiac disease, your child’s doctor will perform a blood test that measures the levels of gluten antibodies in the lining of the intestine. If the blood test shows high levels of gluten antibodies, a biopsy will be performed on the tissue in the small intestine.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, a biopsy is necessary to accurately confirm the disease and to assess the degree of damage to the intestinal lining. To take the tissue sample, a long, thin endoscope tube is inserted through your child’s mouth, down through the stomach, and into the small intestine. It is usually recommended that a child be sedated during the procedure.

Once all gluten is eliminated from the diet, a child’s small intestine will heal and overall health will improve. Your child’s doctor will discuss a life-long, strict adherence to a gluten-free diet to minimize symptoms and prevent any further damage to the small intestine.

After following the prescribed gluten-free diet, your child’s doctor will request a follow-up visit and may also test for anemia, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, or bone density problems.
Since celiac disease runs in families, your doctor may suggest that other family members, even grandparents, get tested, too.

Several national celiac organizations are available for current information, suggestions, and support.

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