Coeliac disease in children: how to spot it...

Coeliac disease in children: its more common than you think…

It is estimated that around 1 in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, that’s around 1% of the adult population. Many experts believe the real figure is higher because many cases may go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed as digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, or “IBS”. As a result, it’s difficult to be precise on the prevalence of coeliac disease in children, but it’s generally thought to be a similar ratio of 1 in 100 (Source: Mail Online).

Who does it affect?

According to Coeliac UK, if a close family member is a coeliac there’s a one in ten chance that a new baby will inherit it. It’s also more common in people who have other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, some thyroid diseases and type 1 diabetes.

A study carried out in 2004 by Bristol University and published in the British Medical Journal, showed that coeliac disease could be triggered in childhood but that the symptoms don’t necessarily appear until later in life.

Researchers on the study analysed blood samples from 5,470 seven-and-a-half year olds and discovered 54 children tested positive for the antibodies which are known to be markers of the disease, but only four children were on a gluten free diet.  They also discovered that girls were twice as likely to have the antibodies as boys.

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease mostly affects the small intestine and is caused by a reaction to gluten.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, although some sufferers can also be sensitive to oats. Gluten is present in lots of everyday foods such as bread, cereals, pasta, pizza, cakes, biscuits and can also be a  “hidden” ingredient in foods like sauces and chocolate.

It’s important to be clear that coeliac disease is NOT a food allergy or intolerance.  It’s an autoimmune disease where the immune system (the body’s defence against infection) attacks substances found inside gluten thinking they are a threat to the body.  This causes inflammation to the villi, which are the tiny tube-shaped structures inside the lining of the small intestine. The knock-on affect of this is that the nutrients from food are not easily absorbed and so lead to a variety of problems.

Signs and symptoms in a baby

The medical information and support website, Patient, explains that symptoms in babies develop soon after weaning when gluten containing foods are introduced into their diet and include:

  • Failure to grow or gain weight
  • Stools appearing pale and bulky due to nutrients not being properly absorbed
  • Swollen tummy
  • Repeated vomiting

So although the signs of coeliac disease are likely to show between the ages of 8 to 12 / 24 months it may take years for a correct diagnosis to be made.  It can also be a long and difficult road to determine whether your child actually has the disease.

Next week on the blog, we will put this into context with a case study regarding coeliac disease in children; from a little girl called Aili, who was failing to thrive.

This is a guest post from Maria Brannigan over on Gluten Free and Gorgeous; her excellent new blog about living within a wheat intolerance. Go and check her and it out!

Image above courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net