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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of coeliac disease in children

Mate wīti ki ngā tamariki

Illustration showing a baby and the small intestine highlighted at the lower part of the torso.Coeliac (sometimes spelled celiac) disease is an autoimmune disease. It's caused by an abnormal reaction by your child's immune (infection-fighting) system to gluten. Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats.

Your child's immune system mistakes gluten as a threat to the body. To protect the body from the threat, the immune system creates special gluten-fighting antibodies to fight it.

If your tamaiti (child) has coeliac disease, these gluten-fighting antibodies damage the lining of the small bowel.

Your child's small bowel is lined with tiny finger-like projections called villi. Villi break down and absorb nutrients in food. In coeliac disease, gluten damages the villi so they become flat and the surface area of the bowel decreases. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. This means your tamaiti child may not absorb enough vitamins (such as folic acid) and minerals (such as iron and calcium).

These diagrams show where the small intestine is and the damage that happens to the small intestine lining in coeliac disease.

Illustration showing long bits protruding from the intestine wall for healthy villi and much shorter bits for damaged villi.About one in 70 New Zealanders may have coeliac disease – up to 80 percent of them do not know they have the condition. It's more common in people of European descent but can affect anybody. It can affect tamariki (children) of any age after they start eating foods containing gluten.

Close relatives of someone with coeliac disease have an increased risk of developing the disease. Coeliac disease can also develop in tamariki children with other autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes and thyroid disease. It is also more common in tamariki with chromosomal conditions such as Down syndrome.

If your tamaiti has coeliac disease, they will need to follow a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of their life, even if they do not have any symptoms caused by eating gluten.

Symptoms of coeliac disease in children

Tamariki with coeliac disease may have some of the following symptoms but may also have none at all:

On the next page: Diagnosing & treating coeliac disease in children

Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub collaborative. Last reviewed February 2022.

Page reference: 975035

Review key: HICDC-16032