An intolerance to gluten

Gluten intolerance, also known as coeliac disease or celiac disease, is the result of the immune system's response to the ingestion of gluten and is a life-long inflammatory disease of the upper small intestine.

Coeliac disease is now a common disease and its causes are still unknown. It is thought to be associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors and will often run in families. It is also more common in women than men. It is recommended that children are breastfed and that the introduction of foods containing gluten are delayed until after four months, and introduced slowly over a period of time, to prevent children from developing coeliac disease.

Wheat intolerance/ coeliac diseaseGluten is a protein that can be found in wheat, rye and barley and therefore foods that can trigger a gluten intolerance include:

  • Pasta
  • Cakes
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bread
  • Biscuits
  • Pies

It is also important to check food packaging labels since gluten can be found in several additives including modified food starch and malt flavouring.

The symptoms people suffer vary from person to person and can be relatively mild to severe, in some cases. The symptoms will also vary from baby to child to adult. Possible things to look out for are:

Babies – chronic diarrhoea, abdominal distension, poor feeding, poor weight gain, muscle wasting.

Children – chronic diarrhoea or constipation, vomiting, poor weight gain or growth, poor feeding, irritability, muscle wasting.

Adults – chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, anaemia, weakness, fatigue.

Coeliac disease can often be mistaken as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or wheat intolerance and therefore not properly diagnosed. Without treatment, coeliac disease can cause a range of potential long-term complications including osteoporosis, growth defects and infertility. It is therefore important for people to talk to their GP if they suspect they may have a gluten intolerance.

Confirmation of coeliac disease is generally done by a blood test followed by a gut biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, there is no cure, but you will need to switch to a gluten-free diet. There are now many gluten free alternatives available from supermarkets, health food shops and online. You should, within weeks, find an improvement in your symptoms. It may, however, take up to two years for your digestive system to heal completely.

Dermatitis herpetiformis

Some people who have a gluten intolerance will sometimes have a very itchy skin rash with blisters. This is not a symptom of coeliac disease but is a condition associated with exposure to gluten in the diet and is known as dermatitis herpetiformis.

The rash, although appearing anywhere on the body, will usually be found on the elbows, knees and buttocks and if the blisters are scratched they can burst.

Again, switching to a gluten-free diet will help the rash clear up.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 6 December 2012

Next review: 14 August 2014