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Overview of coeliac disease

Tirohanga whānui ki te mate witi-kore

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. It affects about 1% of New Zealanders. 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.

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 have include:

Diagnosing coeliac disease


Do not start a gluten-free diet until you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease. This is because you need to be eating gluten to get accurate test results. If you have been on a gluten-free diet, you will need to return to a normal diet for six weeks before testing. During this time, you will need to eat at least four slices of wheat-based bread (or equivalent) daily.

See this flyer from Education in Nutrition. It describes the types gluten-containing foods you should eat for accurate coeliac disease testing. It also tells you the amount of gluten-containing foods you should eat.

Your general practice team will ask you if you have any coeliac-related symptoms. They will also discuss your family history and overall health and lifestyle.

If it is possible that you might have coeliac disease, you will need to have a screening blood test. If this test shows you might have coeliac disease, you will need to have a procedure called a gastroscopy.

In a gastroscopy, a small, flexible tube with a camera is passed through your mouth and into your stomach. You will not need a general anaesthetic and will be able to go home the same day.

Treating coeliac disease

There is no cure for coeliac disease. The only effective treatment is to follow a strict gluten-free diet. You will need to do this for the rest of your life, even if you do not have any symptoms caused by eating gluten.

Eating foods containing gluten when you have coeliac disease can lead to poor health. Possible poor health outcomes include osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage and dental enamel defects. It can also lead to 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 November 2023.


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