What is it Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is the result of an immune system response to eating gluten (a protein found in many grains, for example wheat, rye, oats and barley) that damages the small intestine. As a result of the damage to the small intestine, the body struggles to absorb the essential nutrients it needs to thrive, resulting in malnutrition. (


In scientific terms, Celiac disease is defined as a chronic intestinal malabsorption caused by an intolerance to gluten. It is characterised by bulky, pale, frothy, foul smelling, greasy stools with increased fecal fat. The individual may also show signs of weight loss and multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies. (Pizzorno et al, 2002) However, some individuals with celiac disease show minimal symptoms. Children with Celiac disease often present with failure to thrive and irritability.


Celiac disease is often inherited, but some cases may occur without any family history. The exact cause is unknown though many triggers have been suggested, including viral infection, surgery, extreme stress and childbirth. (Watson et al, 2003)


Celiac disease occurs twice as often in females as in males and primarily affects Caucasians and people of European decent. It rarely occurs in people of African, Jewish, Mediterranean or Asian decent. (Watson et al, 2003)


 This article has been co-written with Paediatrician and Allergy Specialist, Dr Claudia Gray (MBChB (UCT), MRCPCH (London), MScClin Pharm(Surrey), DipPaedNutrition (UK), PostgradDipAllergy (Southampton), Certified Paediatric Allergologist (SA))

Dr Gray works at the allergy clinic at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town, and has a private practice at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, contact 021 531 8013.