Celiac disease (CD), a chronic intestinal disorder caused by a hypersensitivity to gluten proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and possibly oat products, is a common problem affecting as many as one in 133 people in the U.S, including young children. However, because some of the common symptoms of celiac disease, including stomachaches and diarrhea, are often blamed on other common childhood ailments, such as food allergies, the disease frequently goes undiagnosed-and, consequently, untreated.

Now the results from a new Canadian study published in the journal Pediatrics may give physicians new ammunition in accurately diagnosing celiac disease in children. According to study researchers at the University of Calgary and Alberta Children's Hospital, the use of new antibody tests have allowed more patients with nontraditional celiac symptoms, such as chronic abdominal pain, acid reflux, vomiting and constipation, to be tested via a blood test, which can detect certain antibodies produced in people with CD. People who test positive for these antibodies can then be given an intestinal biopsy, the definitive test for CD. During this test, a small piece of tissue is removed from the small intestine to check for damage to the villi, the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine. When people with CD eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying villi.

The use of the antibody tests in the new study found that the rate of celiac disease diagnoses at Alberta Children's Hospital tripled after the introduction of antibody testing in 1997. Research at other centers has found similar rates of increases in celiac diagnoses when antibody testing was used.

According to study author J. Decker Butzner, M.D., professor, Department of Pediatrics at the University of Calgary, antibody testing for CD should be performed when a child has chronic gastrointestinal symptoms that don't improve on their own or respond to treatment.

Spotting Celiac Disease Symptoms

Classic symptoms of celiac disease include chronic diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain, gas and bloating. But "atypical" symptoms may occur in places other than the digestive tract and, therefore, may not be linked with CD. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Delayed growth
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • An itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis