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Overview of coeliac disease

Coeliac disease (pronounced see-liac) is a lifelong condition caused by a reaction to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. In coeliac disease, gluten damages the lining of your small bowel (small intestine). This causes inflammation, which makes it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from food.

Coeliac disease can develop at any stage in life. If you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister or child) with coeliac disease, you have a 10% chance of having it as well.

Coeliac disease affects about 1% of New Zealanders.

Symptoms of coeliac disease

There are no specific symptoms of coeliac disease. Many people with coeliac disease have no obvious symptoms at all. But symptoms you may experience include:

Diagnosing coeliac disease


Don't start a gluten-free diet until you've been diagnosed with coeliac disease, as you need to be eating gluten to get accurate test results. If you've been on a gluten-free diet, you'll need to return to a normal diet for four to six weeks before testing. During this time, you'll need to eat at least four slices of wheat-based bread (or equivalent) daily.

This flyer from Education in Nutrition describes the types of gluten-containing foods you should eat for accurate coeliac disease testing.

Your GP will ask you if you have any coeliac-related symptoms and will discuss your family history and overall health and lifestyle.

If it's possible that you might have coeliac disease, you'll need to have a screening blood test. If this test shows you might have coeliac disease, you'll need to have a procedure called a gastroscopy. This is done at the Christchurch Hospital Gastroenterology Department. The gastroscopy is free, but you may have to wait up to three months to have one.

If you prefer, or if you don't want to wait, you can pay to have a gastroscopy done privately.

Treating coeliac disease

There's no cure for coeliac disease. The only effective treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet, which you'll need to do for the rest of your life, even if you don't have any symptoms caused by eating gluten.

Continuing to eat foods containing gluten when you have coeliac disease can lead to poor health, osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage, dental enamel defects, and an increased risk of some cancers.

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On the next page: Self-care for coeliac disease

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2020.


Page reference: 44354

Review key: HICOA-25716