Celiac Disease in Kids

Celiac disease is a serious digestive disorder that can cause developmental and long-lasting digestive issues for your child. However, the proper treatment and lifestyle changes can help alleviate your child’s symptoms and allow them to avoid long-term digestive damage.

Remarkable Care for kids

  • Combined expertise for skilled celiac disease care: The Pediatric Celiac Disease and Food Sensitivity Clinic at Rush University Children’s Hospital brings together the knowledge of specialists, including pediatric allergists, pediatric gastroenterologists and dietitians who work collectively to develop a tailor-made care plan for children from newborns to age 21.
  • One-stop shop for pediatric food-related conditions: The clinic is one of the only ones in the Chicago area dedicated to treating kids with celiac disease, food allergies, food sensitivities, food allergy-related gastrointestinal disorders and any other condition that may be improved with dietary interventions, all in one clinic.
  • Nutritional expertise: Dietitians who specialize in celiac disease in children at Rush University Children’s Hospital will work with your child, you and your whole family to transition to a gluten-free diet, which will help ease your child’s symptoms of celiac disease and improve their overall digestive health.
  • Family-centered care: Rush University Children’s Hospital’s clinical specialists firmly believe that families are at the center of the best treatment plans, so we work closely with you to determine how to best integrate treatment for celiac disease into your child’s and family’s life.

What is celiac disease in kids?

Being able to absorb nutrients is critical for your child’s growth and development. However, if your child has the digestive disorder celiac disease, absorbing nutrients becomes difficult when eating food with gluten.

The protein gluten — found in foods like barley, rye and wheat — damages finger-like projections called villi, which line your child’s small intestine. This immune system response prevents your child from getting proper nutrients from food. This can cause the following problems:

  • Damage to enamel of permanent teeth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Failure to thrive in infants
  • Moodiness, including irritability or impatience
  • Short height and slowed growth
  • Weight loss

Celiac disease symptoms in kids

Symptoms of celiac disease in kids can start at any age after gluten is introduced into your child’s diet. Children with celiac disease can experience digestive problems along with other symptoms — or no symptoms at all. These digestive symptoms are the most common signs of celiac disease:

  • Bloating or abdominal swelling
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain

Celiac disease risk factors in kids

Genetics play a role in children with celiac disease.  Having a relative with celiac disease increases the risk of developing the disease in other family members.

Children who have the following conditions also have a higher risk for celiac disease:

  • Autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s): When the immune system attacks the thyroid gland causing inflammation
  • Down syndrome: A genetic chromosome disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays
  • Turner syndrome: A genetic disorder that affects girls’ development due to a missing or incomplete X chromosome
  • Type 1 diabetes: Your child’s pancreas does not produce insulin
  • Williams syndrome: A rare genetic disorder that causes mild to moderate cognitive developmental delays or learning difficulties
  • Selective immunoglobulin A (IgA) deficiency: A mild condition that increases the risk of respiratory and diarrheal infections.

Celiac disease vs. food sensitivities and allergies

Having celiac disease is not the same as having a food sensitivity to gluten or a wheat allergy. Here are the differences between these two conditions:

  • Gluten sensitivity: Similar symptoms to celiac disease, but it does not trigger an immune response so there is no damage to the small intestine.
  • Wheat allergy: Similar to celiac disease in that your child’s body has an immune response, but it is a different type of immune response from celiac disease. Wheat allergy is an immediate response that results in hives, difficulty breathing, nasal congestion, diarrhea, and vomiting but no damage to the small intestine

Care for celiac disease in kids at Rush

Diagnosing celiac disease in kids

Celiac disease in children can be difficult to diagnose since many of its symptoms can be mistaken for other disorders, such as lactose intolerance (inability to digest foods with lactose in them) or irritable bowel syndrome (a condition affecting the large intestine that causes abdominal discomfort and change in bowels).

Your child’s pediatrician, however, may be able to diagnose celiac disease with the following:

  • Family and medical history
  • Physical exam
  • Testing

Your child’s pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist who may conduct the following tests:

  • Blood tests: A blood sample taken to identify common antibodies found in celiac disease
  • Genetic tests: Blood tests to find certain gene variants or changes
  • Intestinal biopsy: To confirm blood test results, a small piece of tissue is taken from your child’s small intestine during an upper GI endoscopy, where a camera with a light on a long, flexible tube is used to see the stomach lining

Celiac disease can also be identified during a routine exam with your child’s dentist. Children with celiac disease may have dental enamel issues such as brown, white or yellow spots on their teeth.

Nutritional counseling and support

Since food is the core issue, treatment for celiac disease in kids centers on nutrition and dietary changes. The main goal is to remove gluten from your child’s diet since symptoms generally improve once it’s removed. A gluten-free diet is a big change for many families, but dietitians who specialize in celiac disease at Rush University Children’s Hospital will work with your child, you and your whole family to ensure a successful transition.

Our experienced pediatric nutritionists will educate your family on the following:

  • How to check product and food labels for gluten
  • How to create daily meal plans
  • How to make healthy meal choices

Once your child starts a gluten-free diet, you may see symptoms improve within days to weeks. Once the small intestine heals, the damaged villi will regrow and nutrients from food will be absorbed into the bloodstream once again.

If your child’s celiac disease still does not improve after starting the gluten-free diet, there may be hidden sources of gluten in your child’s diet or environment. Some culprits include the following:

  • Malt flavoring
  • Modified food starch
  • Preservatives
  • Stabilizers
  • Lip balm
  • Some medications
  • Supplements and vitamins
  • Toothpaste

Rush also treats adults with celiac disease and other food sensitivities at the Celiac Disease and Food Sensitivity Clinic for adults.