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Health A-Z

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Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Celiac disease (also called non-tropical sprue, celiac sprue, gluten intolerance and gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is an intestinal disorder in which the body cannot tolerate gluten. Gluten is a natural protein in many grains, including wheat, barley, rye and oats.

People with celiac disease have an immune reaction that is triggered by gluten. The immune reaction causes inflammation at the surface of the small intestine where it damages small structures - villi - on the surface of the intestine. It also damages smaller, hair-sized protrusions called microvilli. Healthy villi and microvilli are needed for normal digestion. When they are damaged, the intestine cannot absorb nutrients properly and you can become malnourished.

A tendency to develop celiac disease is genetic (inherited). Celiac disease is most common among people of northern European descent. Celiac disease is not always recognized because the symptoms can be mild and can be wrongly blamed upon other common intestinal issues. Celiac disease can be diagnosed at any age.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition because the body's own immune system damages the intestinal villi, even though the process is started by eating gluten. People with celiac disease also are more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases, such as thyroid disease and type 1 diabetes. A few conditions frequently coexist with celiac disease, including dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy, blistering skin rash) and liver inflammation. People who have Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing celiac disease than is typical.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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