Understanding Celiac Disease: Can You Develop It as an Adult?

While celiac disease is often diagnosed in childhood, it is possible to develop this condition later in life. Understanding the nature of celiac disease and how it can manifest in adulthood is crucial for maintaining health and managing symptoms effectively.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, acts like glue in dough, providing elasticity and helping foods maintain their shape. For individuals with celiac disease, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, leading to various health issues.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the condition affects about one in 100 people worldwide, but only around 30% are properly diagnosed. While some people are born with celiac disease or are diagnosed in childhood, others may develop the condition later in life.

Can You Develop Celiac Disease Later in Life?

Yes, celiac disease can develop at any age. Dr. Amit Miglani, Director and HOD of Gastroenterology at Asian Hospital, Faridabad, explains that some individuals have a genetic predisposition to celiac disease. The likelihood of developing the condition increases if a parent, child, or sibling is affected. Symptoms may only appear after a person starts consuming a high-gluten diet.

Dr. Miglani highlights two common age windows for diagnosis: early infancy (between eight and 12 months) and mid-life (between 40 and 60 years). “Early childhood is the most likely time for symptoms of celiac disease to start showing up, typically when children begin eating solid foods containing gluten,” he says. However, many people are diagnosed in mid-life, indicating that the condition can indeed develop later.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

The symptoms of celiac disease can vary widely among individuals. Some people might not experience any symptoms, while others may have severe digestive issues. Common symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatty stools after eating gluten

In severe cases, additional symptoms may include:

  • Iron-deficiency anemia (leading to weakness, tiredness, pale skin, cold hands, brittle or spoon-shaped nails, headaches, and mouth sores)
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Growth delays in children
  • Muscle wasting
  • Dental enamel defects
  • Irregular periods
  • Difficulty getting pregnant
  • Mood changes like irritability in children and depression in adults

Dr. Miglani adds, “About 15% of people with celiac disease develop dermatitis herpetiformis, a chronic skin condition causing an itchy rash that looks like clusters of bumps or blisters, usually on the elbows, knees, buttocks, or scalp.”

Is Celiac Disease Curable?

Currently, there is no cure for celiac disease. However, the condition can be managed effectively with a strict gluten-free diet. Dr. Miglani emphasizes that eliminating gluten from the diet is the first and most crucial step in managing celiac disease. “Your small intestine will begin to heal when you quit eating gluten, and you’ll soon be able to absorb nutrients better. But for the rest of your life, you must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet to avoid harming your small intestine again.”

In addition to a gluten-free diet, medical care may include:

  • Nutritional supplements to address any deficiencies
  • Medications such as dapsone to treat dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Corticosteroids if the diet does not sufficiently reduce severe inflammation
  • Regular monitoring and routine testing to ensure the condition is under control

Bottom Line

Celiac disease can indeed develop later in life, even if one has never had issues with gluten before. Recognizing the symptoms and understanding the importance of a strict gluten-free diet are essential steps in managing this condition. Consulting with a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment is crucial for maintaining health and well-being.

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