Coeliac Disease

Medibank Health Directory

What is coeliac disease?

One in 70 Australians suffer from coeliac disease; yet up to 75 per cent are undiagnosed because many people experience no symptoms.

If you have any suspicions, it is important to have specialist medical tests for coeliac disease, as it is a serious autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine. Once diagnosed, you can eliminate gluten from your diet and enjoy a life free from symptoms.

If you are a coeliac, your body doesn’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. For coeliacs, the gluten makes the villi – tiny, finger-like projections in your small intestine – become inflamed and flattened, which in turn makes it difficult for nutrients to be absorbed into the body. 

The most important part of managing coeliac disease is strictly avoiding foods that contain gluten. Unfortunately, much of the Australian diet includes food containing gluten. There are obvious foods to avoid such as bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits, but there is also ‘hidden gluten’ found in numerous items in the supermarket, like sausages, for example. There are a wide range of websites, books, and even apps, to guide you through your grocery shopping – so that, before long, gluten-free cooking is easy. 

It is important to remember that the diagnosis of coeliac disease can only be confirmed by a doctor performing a gastroscopy and taking a small painless biopsy of your small intestine. This usually involves a day stay in hospital and a light anaesthetic. A dietitian can then provide expert advice on eliminating gluten from your diet. 

Coeliac disease has serious implications if left untreated with the potential for malnutrition, osteoporosis, depression, infertility and cancer. However, if you are correctly diagnosed early these illnesses can be avoided by adopting a gluten-free diet. 

Symptoms of coeliac disease

Diagnosing coeliac disease can be difficult as some people show no symptoms. Others can experience severe and unpleasant symptoms.

Furthermore, there are different symptoms of coeliac in adults and children. 

If you are concerned your child might be coeliac, look out for:

  • abdominal pain, bloating or flatulence
  • foul-smelling bowel movements
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • nausea or vomiting
  • weight loss or limited weight gain
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • delayed growth.

Adults may experience the following symptoms:

  • stomach cramps
  • bloating or flatulence
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • anaemia
  • lethargy
  • stomach cramps
  • weight loss
  • bone and joint pain
  • dermatitis of the skin
  • bruises easily
  • ulcers on the mouth or tongue.

If you adhere to a gluten-free diet, the small intestine will have a chance to repair and the symptoms should disappear. 

Causes and treatment of coeliac disease

Your genes will determine if you are going to be a coeliac. The disease can then be triggered by various environmental factors at any stage of your life. 

The first step toward treating coeliac disease is to have a series of tests to prove the diagnosis. It is important to have your normal diet (including gluten containing foods) for 6 weeks preceding these tests – if you exclude gluten the test results will be incorrect: 

  • Blood tests are taken to measure particular antibodies, with higher levels in people who are coeliac.
  • A ten-minute procedure called a gastroscopy that involves removing a tiny amount of the small bowel so the villi can be viewed under the microscope.

Beware of tests that are not scientifically proven for correct diagnosis such as iridology, stool testing or hair analysis. Be sure to visit your doctor to begin testing or contact Coeliac Australia for advice. 

The treatment for coeliac disease is purely a change in diet. With the help of your doctor and a dietitian, you will be able to enjoy a nutritious and fulfilling gluten-free diet and the uncomfortable symptoms will disappear. 

Further information and sources



This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of coeliac disease. For more information, see  Better Health Channel. 


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