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Celiac disease

Last updated: November 17, 2020


Celiac disease, also referred to as celiac sprue or nontropical sprue, is a common condition characterized by a maladaptive immune response to gluten, a protein found in many grains (e.g., wheat). The disease often occurs in patients with other autoimmune illnesses, as both are associated with HLA variants (human leukocyte antigens, which encode immunoregulatory proteins) that cause pathologically increased immune responses. The underlying pathophysiology is believed to be a combination of gluten intolerance, which triggers an autoimmune reaction, and production of autoantibodies that target tissue transglutaminase, specifically within the proximal small intestine. Typical findings include changes in bowel habits and symptoms associated with malabsorption (e.g., fatigue, weight loss, vitamin deficiencies). Diagnostic tests include the detection of various antibodies. To confirm the diagnosis, an endoscopic biopsy from the small intestine is needed. Histopathological findings often include villous atrophy and crypt hyperplasia. A definitive diagnosis is necessary, as therapy involves a lifelong commitment to a gluten-free diet. If patients comply with this diet, the prognosis is generally very good and the increased risk of celiac-associated malignancies (e.g., intestinal lymphoma) is mitigated.


  • Definition: autoimmune disorder characterized by an intestinal hypersensitivity to gluten, a grain protein [1]
  • Synonyms: celiac sprue; gluten-sensitive enteropathy



  • Sex: >
  • Age of onset:
    • The disease can occur at any age.
    • Peak incidence is bimodal:
      • At 8–12 months (or 2–3 months following the first exposure to gluten through diet containing wheat)
      • Third to fourth decade of life
  • Prevalence: in the US ∼ 1:3000
  • More common in individuals of northern European descent


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  • Genetic predisposition with association to HLA antigens
    • Common: HLA-DQ2 (90–95%)
    • Alternatively: HLA-DQ8 (5–10%)
  • Consuming gliadin from grains such as wheat, rye, and barley leads to an autoimmune reaction within the small intestinal wall.
  • Commonly associated with autoimmune diseases (see “Clinical features” below)



Symptoms manifest when a genetically predisposed individual develops an immunological response to gliadin, an alcohol-soluble fraction of gluten.


Clinical features

Gastrointestinal symptoms

Extraintestinal symptoms and associations

In both children and adults, mild or asymptomatic cases are more common than the classic presentation of the disease.



General principles [6][10][11]

Laboratory studies [6][11]

Routine studies

  • IgA tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG IgA): initial test
    • Widely available test with sensitivity and specificity ≥ 95% [6]
    • Risk of false negatives (e.g., in IgA deficiency, gluten-free diet)
  • Total IgA
    • Indicated for all patients because of the high prevalence of IgA deficiency in patients with celiac disease (approx. 2–3%) [6]
    • If patients have low IgA, perform further IgG-based testing.

Additional studies

Endoscopy [6][11]

False-negative serology and histopathology results are possible if patients are already adhering to a gluten-free diet.

Diagnosis without endoscopy [11]

  • Adults: diagnosis without biopsy not recommended.
  • Children: consider diagnosis without biopsy if all of the following criteria are met (controversial) [17][18]

Further evaluation


  • Repeat laboratory studies after 3–6 months and 12 months, then annually [6][11]
    • tTG-IgA or DGP antibodies
    • Nutrient levels if the patient had a deficiency at the time of diagnosis [13]
  • Endoscopy: only if symptoms persist or return in patients adhering to a gluten-free diet [6][10][13]

Differential diagnoses

Tropical sprue

Celiac disease and tropical sprue have similar features (e.g., steatorrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss), but only tropical sprue responds to antibiotics.

Whipple disease

Anyone who CANT appreciate the foamy, PAStoral rivers of England gets Whipped: the most important features of Whipple disease are Cardiac symptoms, Arthralgias, Neurologic symptoms, Trots (diarrhea), and foamy, PAS-positive macrophages on biopsy.

Whipple disease is lethal if left untreated!


The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


Diet [6][25]

  • Strict, lifelong gluten-free diet
    • Abstain from products containing wheat, rye, barley, or spelt.
    • Symptoms usually improve quickly [25]
  • Recommended foods: rice, corn, potatoes, soybeans, millet
  • Patients with secondary lactase deficiency: Avoid milk products.


Managing celiac disease mainly consists of maintaining a lifelong gluten-free diet.



We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.


  • There is no proven measure to prevent celiac disease.
  • With infants, introducing small amounts of wheat (into the supplementary diet) between 4–6 months of age does not increase the risk of developing celiac disease


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