Overview of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease (also called celiac sprue or gluten-induced enteropathy) is an intestinal disorder characterized by sensitivity to gluten, which is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. This sensitivity is inherited genetically; however, the cause for celiac disease is unknown. Symptoms of the disorder can develop at any time from childhood through adulthood, and may be triggered by an illness, emotional stress, childbirth, or surgery.

When a person with celiac disease eats a food containing gluten (e.g., bread, pasta), an immune response is triggered. Over time, this response damages tiny hair-like projections (called villi) in the lining of the small intestine.

Normally, nutrients in foods are absorbed into the bloodstream through the villi. Damage to the villi can prevent the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, which can interfere with normal growth and development in children and healthy function in adults.

Incidence & Prevalence of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease occurs throughout the world. The exact incidence and prevalence of celiac disease is unknown and estimates vary. Researchers agree that many people who have the disorder are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Recent studies suggest that as many as 1 out of every 120 people may have celiac disease. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as many as 3 million people in the United States have the disorder.

Although celiac disease occurs worldwide, it has a higher incidence among people of European descent, especially those of Celtic heritage (i.e., people whose ancestors came from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or Brittany [a region of northwestern France]), and in people who have other genetic disorders (e.g., Down syndrome).

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 28 Feb 2008

Last Modified: 17 Aug 2015