Celiac disease in children

Liz Wood Alphabiolabs

By Liz Wood, Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 03/08/2024

In this article, we discuss celiac disease in children including symptoms, diagnosis, and how the condition can be managed in the long term.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that develops over time because of a sensitivity to gluten; a protein found in certain cereal grains including wheat, rye, and barley, and commonly used in food products such as cereal, bread, and pasta.

When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue, causing damage to the gut lining and preventing the body from adequately absorbing nutrients from food.

How common is celiac disease in children?

Around 1 in 300 children are affected by celiac disease in the US. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, this number rises to 1 in 10 for children who have a first-degree relative (i.e. parent or sibling) with the disease.

Many children living with celiac disease are not yet diagnosed, as it can often be mistaken for other childhood conditions due to its symptoms (e.g. stomach pain, sickness, bloating, fatigue).

Celiac disease can also slow growth in children. This means it is especially important for children to be diagnosed early, as late diagnosis can adversely impact growth and development.

What are the symptoms of celiac disease in children?

The most common symptoms of celiac disease in children include loose stools (diarrhea), bloating (including a distended abdomen), constipation (difficulty passing stools), and vomiting or nausea.

Other non-gastrointestinal symptoms include tiredness, weight loss, and dermatitis herpetiformis – a skin rash characterized by itchy, blistering skin, typically on the elbow, knees, and buttocks.

It’s important to understand that these symptoms can vary widely from person to person, and children can experience different symptoms depending on their age. This means that infants and toddlers might experience differing symptoms from those of older school-age children and teenagers.

Undiagnosed celiac disease is especially dangerous for children, as malnutrition can impact growth (height and weight), and delay puberty.

If your child has any of the symptoms associated with celiac disease, you should speak to your child’s physician as soon as possible, so that they can investigate further.

Everything you need to know about celiac disease

What are the symptoms of celiac disease in children of different ages/stages?

The symptoms of celiac disease can vary, depending on the age and developmental stage of the child.

For example, symptoms in infants typically emerge during weaning onto solid foods (around 6 months of age), once cereals have been introduced into the diet.

This can include diarrhea and constipation, but may also include extra fussiness/irritability, poor growth, and failure to thrive as their body struggles to absorb essential nutrients.

Toddlers and young children can experience gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea or constipation), but may also show signs of delayed growth, behavioral changes, and a failure to gain weight.

Celiac disease can also put toddlers and young children at risk of anemia due to poor iron absorption, which can cause extreme tiredness (fatigue).

Symptoms in older children and teenagers may be more varied, and can include delayed puberty, dental enamel defects, and stunted growth.

Symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and mood changes are also more common in this age group, which can affect concentration and performance at school.

Is it possible for children with celiac disease to show no symptoms?

It is possible for children with celiac disease to show no symptoms at all. This is known as being asymptomatic or having “silent” celiac disease.

Research has shown that celiac disease runs in families. This makes testing even more important for children who have a first-degree relative with celiac disease (i.e. sibling or parent), as they could be at risk of developing celiac disease in the future.

Children who do not have symptoms can still test positive for celiac disease on blood tests or a gut biopsy, even if they are not experiencing any adverse effects.

If your child has a first-degree relative with celiac disease, a Genetic Celiac Disease Test can help you find out whether they are at risk of developing celiac disease in the future, with only a cheek swab sample required.

This simple, non-invasive, and completely pain-free test can be used as the first step towards finding out if your child is at risk of developing celiac disease, before more invasive diagnostic tests are required.

The results can also be shared with medical professionals to enable a faster diagnosis, should your child have one or both of the genes linked to celiac disease (HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8).

Early diagnosis is important, especially in children, as celiac disease can cause serious long-term health issues if left undiagnosed/untreated.

Learn more about the Genetic Celiac Disease Test

What are the causes and risk factors for children with celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition caused by an adverse reaction of the immune system to gluten.

When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in cereals including wheat, barley, and rye, the immune system reacts by damaging the gut lining of the small intestine. This makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients properly.

This can lead to various symptoms and complications including stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea, and malnutrition.

Research into the condition has shown that celiac disease runs in families. This means that children who have a first-degree relative with the condition (i.e. parent or sibling) are at a higher risk of developing celiac disease in the future.

Children with pre-existing autoimmune conditions are also at greater risk of developing celiac disease over time. Other conditions that have been linked to celiac disease include autoimmune thyroid disease and Type 1 diabetes.

Learn more about conditions linked to celiac disease

How are children diagnosed with celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune condition, which is why early diagnosis is very important for preventing complications in the future.

Diagnostic testing for celiac disease usually includes blood testing for antibodies and, depending on the results of the blood test, a gut biopsy to assess any damage to the gut lining.

However, a genetic test for celiac disease can also assist the diagnostic process. This is because celiac disease runs in families, and people who have a first-degree relative with the condition (i.e. parent or sibling) have a higher risk of developing celiac disease in the future.

Almost all people with celiac disease have either the HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 genes, making genetic testing an effective method for determining the likelihood of your child developing celiac disease over time.

The results of a genetic test for celiac disease can be shared with healthcare professionals, which can be useful when trying to secure a diagnosis more quickly.

It can also rule out the need for more invasive tests if your child does not have either of the genes associated with celiac disease, as this makes it highly unlikely that they will ever develop celiac disease.

Buy a Genetic Celiac Disease Test

What is the treatment for celiac disease in children?

There is currently no treatment for celiac disease, other than adhering to a lifelong gluten-free diet.

This means that children living with celiac disease must avoid any foods that contain gluten including (but not limited to) bread, pasta, cereals, cookies, and cakes.

Once a person with celiac disease removes gluten from their diet, they will typically start to see a significant improvement in their health.

It is important for parents and caregivers of children with celiac disease to check food labels for the presence of gluten, as many foods (particularly processed foods) include additives and flavorings that contain gluten.

It is also crucial that childcare settings and educational institutions (daycare, schools) are informed if your child has celiac disease, so that they can tailor meals and snacks appropriately, and avoid cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods. This also applies for social gatherings outside of the home.

How can celiac disease be managed in children?

For children living with celiac disease, managing the condition involves much more than simply switching to a gluten-free diet.

After all, maintaining a gluten-free lifestyle can be challenging, especially when children are required to mix with their peers in daycare or school settings.

Here are a few things to consider when managing celiac disease in children:

Education

It helps if children living with celiac disease, along with their families, have a good understanding of the disease and what it means for their ongoing health and wellbeing.

This is especially true when it comes to understanding how gluten is used in food, the importance of routinely reading food labels, and how to avoid cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods at home.

The Celiac Disease Foundation is the leading patient advocacy organization for celiac disease in the US, and has lots of useful resources for parents, teachers and children affected by celiac disease. 

Advocacy

You can advocate for a child/children living with celiac disease by ensuring their dietary needs are met away from home. This includes the provision of safe meal options when attending educational settings or social gatherings.

Follow-up care and consultation with health specialists

Routine follow-up appointments with your child’s physician can help you monitor their growth, development and how they are managing a gluten-free diet. These appointments can sometimes include blood tests for any nutrient deficiencies.

Children with celiac disease are also at an increased risk of experiencing bone problems, due to malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D. For this reason, regular bone health evaluations can be useful for preventing long-term complications.

Specialist dietitians can also help by providing meal plans, recipes, and tips for eating out safely.

 

The effects of living with celiac disease can go beyond the impact of a gluten-free diet, especially when children feel different from their peers because of their diagnosis.

Celiac disease support groups can provide much-needed emotional support for children and their families, where they are able to share experiences, tips, and encouragement.

Some children may also benefit from counseling, to help them cope with the emotional aspects of managing a condition like celiac disease.

For more information on managing celiac disease in children, visit https://celiac.org/ or speak to your child’s physician for further support.

How can I get my child tested for celiac disease?

If you have a child who is experiencing symptoms that could indicate celiac disease (e.g. bloating, flatulence, stomach pains etc.) you should speak to your child’s physician, who will be able to provide guidance on the next steps for testing and diagnosis.

Diagnostic testing for celiac disease usually includes blood testing for antibodies and, depending on the results of the blood test, a gut biopsy to assess any damage to the gut lining.

However, before undergoing more invasive testing, an at-home genetic test for celiac disease can help determine whether your child is at risk of developing celiac disease in the future.

The results of this test can also be shared with your child’s physician, which can be useful when trying to secure a diagnosis more quickly.

An AlphaBiolabs Genetic Celiac Disease Test is performed by collecting a cheek (buccal) swab DNA sample. This simple, pain-free method of sample collection means that the test can be performed on anyone of any age, from newborn babies to older children and adults.

The test uses Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing to confirm or rule out the potential of developing celiac disease by analyzing six DNA markers for the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes. It’s easy to order your test online now. Alternatively, you can call our Customer Services team on 727 325 2902 or email info@alphabiolabsusa.com for more information.

Genetic Celiac Disease Testing

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Liz Wood AlphaBiolabs

Liz Wood

Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs
Liz joined AlphaBiolabs in 2021 as a Health Testing Specialist. As well as overseeing a range of health tests, she is also the lead on several validation projects for the company’s latest health test offerings. During her time at AlphaBiolabs, Liz has played an active role in the validation of the company’s Genetic Lactose Intolerance Test and Genetic Celiac Disease Test. An advocate for preventative healthcare, Liz’s main scientific interests center around human disease and reproductive health. Her qualifications include a BS in Biology and an MS in Biology of Health and Disease.

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