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Coeliac disease

Malaltia celíaca a Vall d'Hebron

An autoimmune disorder, coeliac disease is the genetically predisposed reaction to ingesting gluten; a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut, and triticale. For coeliacs, ingesting gluten damages the villi in the small intestine, affecting their capacity to absorb nutrients from food (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals). People of any age may have the condition, and although people from any part of the world may be affected, it appears to be most common among white people whose ancestors were from Northern Europe. The most recent studies show the disease affects around 1 person in 100, and it is currently considered the most common chronic intestinal disorder in the western world.



Although some coeliacs may not show any symptoms, the most common are:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: diarrhoea, malnutrition and weight loss
  • Non-gastrointestinal symptoms: dermatitis herpetiformis


Who is affected by coeliac disease?

It is not fully understood why someone may develop coeliac disease, but several genetic factors are known to make people predisposed to the condition. However, it appears that having a genetic predisposition does not necessarily lead to the disease and that certain environmental factors are required. Despite its genetic origin, we cannot say that it is an inherited disease, although if we look at the general population, the likelihood of someone having the condition is increased if a family member also has it. If there is a family history then the likelihood of having it is 10 %.

First-degree relatives of coeliacs and people with related illnesses such as type 1 diabetes or autoimmune diseases are at greater risk.

Coeliac disease may occur at any age and is more prevalent in women than in men. In Catalonia 1 in every 204 citizens has the condition and it is more common in children than in adults.



The diagnostic process is based on clinical suspicion or recognising some of the risk factors. Serological markers such as anti-transglutaminase antibodies or deamidated gliadin peptide antibodies are used. If they are positive, an endoscopic intestinal biopsy should be performed to confirm diagnosis.

Genetic testing for HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 can also be carried out to identify people at risk of developing the disease.


Typical treatment

Treatment for coeliac disease currently consists of completely and permanently eliminating gluten from the patient’s diet.

Coeliacs cannot eat any foods that contain wheat, oats, barley, or rye. In most cases, complete and lasting recovery from the intestinal damage is achieved, provided the patient does not go back to eating foods containing gluten. Avoiding gluten is only recommended for people with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance and is not necessary, nor recommended, for the general population.

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