The damage

 

Coeliac disease is often thought of a simply a wheat allergy. Far from it. It is an autoimmune condition that causes genetically predisposed people to react to gluten, a protein found wheat, barley and rye.

When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the lining of the small intestine, making it difficult for them to absorb nutrients.

 

Severe symptoms

 

A wide range of symptoms can result including stomach pains, diarrhoea and vomiting, tiredness, constipation, unexplained weight loss, hair loss, mouth ulcers, infertility, iron deficiency anaemia and dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin rash associated with gut damage. Symptoms and their severity vary greatly among people with coeliac disease and are easily confused with many other conditions. This is one reason why it can take so long to diagnose.

"Oxford University research showed that some of our members had taken up to 13 years to get a diagnosis, and people often have to make multiple visits to GPS before they are diagnosed, despite there being a clear diagnosis pathway," says Norma McGough of the charity Coeliac UK.

Only a quarter of people with Coeliac disease are medically diagnosed - the other three quarters do not know they have it. This amounts to 500,000 people in the UK.

 

Treating this disease

 

Untreated, Coeliac disease can lead to osteoporosis (because of chronic malabsorption of calcium) infertility and higher risk of cancers of the gut.

GPs can give screening tests for coeliac disease, and biopsies will confirm its presence.

Only a quarter of people with Coeliac disease are medically diagnosed - the other three quarters do not know they have it. This amounts to 500,000 people in the UK.

Treatment is purely dietary and involves avoiding all gluten. Most bread and pasta and many other processed foods contain gluten but gluten-free substitutes are now widely available. "These days there is a huge range of processed, canned and packet foods that are manufactured to be gluten free, and a legal framework safeguards standards of production," says McGough. 

Food labelling regulations demand that food ingredients are listed, making gluten sources easy to spot.

Gluten-free products often cost more, but people with coeliac disease can get gluten-free staple foods on prescription. 

Of course people with coeliac disease can eat freely of unprocessed foods containing no gluten such as meat, fish, vegetables and most dairy products 

If you think you may have symptoms of coeliac disease, visit your doctor, but  do not restrict your gluten intake before asking for a test.  "Cutting out or down on gluten can mean the test will be inconclusive," says McGough.