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Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body can't digest gluten. But did you know that children and teens have different symptoms? Here we look at those symptoms and ask what you can do for your celiac child.

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune condition where the body cannot digest a protein known as gluten. Attempts to eat gluten in people with Celiac Disease cause damage to the small intestine. The condition can cause a variety of symptoms. Celiac Disease is also known as "Celiac Sprue", and "Gluten-Sensitive Enteropathy".

The treatment for Celiac Disease involves the complete avoidance of all gluten-containing foods. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats, and many prepared foods. If your child has celiac disease, you (and eventually they) will have to read labels carefully, because it is only by totally omitting gluten permanently from the diet that the celiac child will return to health.

What causes celiac disease?

Celiac Disease is a mostly-genetic condition. A child who develops celiac disease has probably inherited one of the two genes linked to the condition from one or both parents. In people with celiac disease, around 95% have the HLA-DQ2 gene, while 5% have the HLA-DQ8 gene.

Although these genetic markers are signs of an increased risk of Celiac Disease, they do not guarantee your child will develop it.

The likelihood of developing Celiac Disease is increased if your child has another autoimmune disorder, such as a thyroid condition, or Type 1 Diabetes.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms, while broadly the same, do vary depending on age. The average celiac has to suffer for eleven years before being diagnosed. Here, we'll look at how symptoms vary between younger and older children and what you should do if you think your child might be a celiac.

Celiac Disease in Toddlers

Babies and toddlers aged 9-24 months most commonly present with "typical" symptoms of Celiac Disease. Symptoms usually begin after gluten-containing foods are introduced into the diet.

Infants in this age-group present with:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • Abdominal distension
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss, or failure to thrive (not gaining correct weight)
  • Vomiting
  • Behavioural changes (previously happy babies may become "cranky" and withdrawn)

Delayed diagnosis may cause additional symptoms:

  • Malnutrition (signs of malnutrition in babies include: lethargy, loss of muscle tone, and hair loss)

Severely-affected babies may suffer celiac crisis, which presents with these symptoms:

  • Watery diarrhoea
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy
  • Severe hypokalaemia (severe potassium deficiency; diagnosed by blood test)

Celiac Disease in Children

Older children may present with symptoms at any age. The severity and age of onset may depend on a number of factors, including the amount of gluten in the diet, and the length of time the child was breastfed. If gluten is introduced while the child is being breastfed, the child will usually start to experience symptoms later, and may have fewer gastrointestinal-related symptoms.

Even if the child is not having many gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten still needs to be completely eliminated from the diet.

Symptoms in children may be milder and include:

  • Nausea
  • Recurrent abdominal pains
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Intermittent diarrhoea
  • Poor growth
  • Fatigue
  • Delayed puberty
  • A rash called Dermatitis Herpetiformis (itchy blisters, mainly on the knees, elbows and buttocks)
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