Health conditions

Coeliac disease

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease (pronounced seel-ee-ak) is an abnormal immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

Watch Professor Geoff Forbes, Consultant Gastroenteroglist from Royal Perth Hospital, talk about coeliac disease.


It causes damage to the small intestine, also known as the small bowel. 

In all people, the lining of the bowel is covered in tiny, hair-like projections (villi) that break-down and absorb food nutrients. 

In people with coeliac disease, the villi become inflamed and flattened (villous atrophy). The surface area of the bowel that can then absorb nutrients is greatly decreased. 

This can lead to various symptoms that can substantially affect a person’s health and quality of life.

Coeliac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 Australians. However, 4 out of 5 people living with coeliac disease are undiagnosed. This means there are around 160,000 Australians who have the disease but don’t know it yet. 

Coeliac disease is not an allergy and should not be confused with wheat intolerance or wheat allergy. You should only start a gluten-free diet (GF) on advice from your doctor.

How do you get coeliac disease?

You must be born with a genetic predisposition to develop coeliac disease.

It is still poorly understood but it is thought that environmental factors play an important role in triggering coeliac disease in infancy, childhood or later in life.

People who are at increased risk of coeliac disease

You are more at risk of developing coeliac disease if you have:

  • a family history of the disease
  • type 1 diabetes
  • liver disease
  • an existing autoimmune disease.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of coeliac disease vary widely.

Your doctor may recommend further testing for coeliac disease if you have:

  • iron deficiency anaemia and/or other vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • stomach and digestive symptoms such as:
    • diarrhoea
    • constipation
    • nausea (feeling sick)
    • vomiting
    • flatulence (passing wind)
    • cramping
    • bloating
    • abdominal pain
  • osteoporosis
  • an autoimmune disease
  • unexplained weight changes
  • fertility issues (unable to have a baby).

Effects of being undiagnosed

Many people with coeliac disease have no obvious symptoms but experience long-term health effects including:

  • chronic poor health
  • osteoporosis
  • infertility
  • miscarriage
  • depression
  • liver disease
  • poor dental health.

How do I know I have coeliac disease?

As coeliac disease is a serious medical condition with lifelong implications, a definitive diagnosis is essential.

If you suspect you have coeliac disease, see your doctor for a diagnosis.

Managing coeliac disease

A lifelong gluten-free diet is the only treatment.

Changing to a gluten-free diet should only be undertaken after the diagnosis of coeliac disease has been properly established by your doctor, as it involves major lifestyle changes.

Where should I get help with my diet?

You should seek advice guidance from a dietitian with experience in coeliac disease. They can help you to manage a gluten-free diet that is also nutritionally balanced.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • Coeliac disease is an abnormal immune response to gluten in food. 
  • There is no cure and the disease can be managed by a gluten-free diet.

Acknowledgements
Digestive Health Network

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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