Celiac Disease in Children

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Finding out your child has celiac disease is stressful. Even getting diagnosed can be a challenge. Some of your family's favorite recipes may need adjustments, and your child will need to learn what to avoid when at school or with friends. While everyone struggles to change their diet, for kids (who may be picky eaters) it’s especially difficult.

From diagnosis to lifestyle planning, you'll find the support you need to improve your child's life at UVA Health Children's. 

Diagnosing Celiac at UVA Health Children’s

The first signs of celiac may seem like a food allergy. Digestive issues and abdominal pain after eating are common symptoms. But celiac is an autoimmune disease. So, the first step to diagnosis is a simple blood draw.

Our pediatric nursing team are experts at helping kids with a fear of needles get through this. 

If the blood test shows celiac antibodies, we'll confirm the diagnosis with an endoscopy. An endoscopy uses a small camera to look inside the body. If your child has celiac disease, your doctor will be able to see inflammation in your child’s small intestine. 

Celiac disease causes damage in a predictable way, so this test confirms the diagnosis.

An endoscopy is a minor procedure, but we'll still talk you and your child through it.

Treatment for Celiac Disease in Children

The only existing treatment for celiac (in adults or children) is learning to recognize and avoid gluten. At UVA Health Children's, our nutritionists will help your family develop a strategy for mealtimes.

Gluten is a protein that's found in: 

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Malt
  • Farro
  • Couscous
  • Tabouleh

Many packaged and processed foods also contain gluten (including ones you wouldn't expect. Even some food that should be gluten-free is contaminated due to where or how it's processed. 

What symptoms your child experiences can range in intensity. While some people with celiac can eat food prepared on the same surface as gluten, others cannot. For some, they'll need their own food prep spaces and appliances, like toasters.

Conditions Celiac Can Cause

Your child may also need treatment for related conditions. If celiac disease is left untreated for long, it can result in:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Fertility problems
  • Malnutrition

Your doctor will want to check for issues that may be related to untreated celiac. If found, these individual concerns can sometimes be addressed. At UVA Health Children's, we have doctors from many specialties. Our doctors will work with your family to create a care plan that addresses your child's celiac as well as any related conditions. 

Having an autoimmune disease also increases your child's risk of developing other autoimmune conditions.

A gluten-free strawberry smoothie

Learning a New Diet

Learning how to eat with celiac disease is tough. Consulting with a pediatric dietician can make it a little easier to understand how to meet your child's nutritional needs.

At UVA Health Children's, a dietician will be part of your child's care team. Through a collaborative, team-based approach, we can find solutions that work for your family. 

Learn More About Our Dietitians

Celiac Disease FAQs

Your doctor will be able to answer your specific questions. But these are some of the most frequently asked questions patients have. 

How young can celiac disease be diagnosed?

Usually, babies don’t show any signs of celiac until they’re introduced to solid food, around 6-9 months. Unfortunately, a lot of the celiac disease symptoms in babies are very general and won’t raise red flags. 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Pain 

Babies and toddlers also don’t usually have the language skills to describe what’s happening.

In older children, vomiting becomes less common. But you may also see constipation.

For adolescents, new symptoms emerge, including: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Difficulty gaining weight 
  • Aching joints
  • Skin rash
  • Mouth sores 
  • Headaches/migraines 

Does gluten-free just mean avoiding bread and wheat? 

Gluten shows up in a surprising number of places. If diagnosed with celiac, your child may also need to avoid some supplements. You may also choose to avoid playing with things like Play-Doh if your child sometimes eats it.

Your provider will help you navigate what adjustments you may need to make. You’ll also need to be aware of cross-contamination. 

When gluten-free food is prepared on a surface that’s been used to prepare food containing gluten, your child may still have a reaction. 

What if my child isn't diagnosed with celiac disease but does better on a gluten-free diet?

You don’t need permission to go gluten-free. If your child feels better on a gluten-free diet, then there’s nothing wrong with eating that (as long as they’re getting the nutrients they need).

But just to clear up a few misconceptions about gluten-free diets: 

  • It won’t help with weight loss 
  • It’s not always better for the environment 
  • It’s often more expensive
  • Gluten-free options are often more processed

Can my child outgrow celiac disease?

No. Kids with celiac disease become adults with celiac disease. But as long as the condition is managed, their quality of life can still be exceptional.