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Q: My relative has celiac disease. Should I be tested even if I have no symptoms?

Celiac disease is hereditary, and people who have a close relative with celiac are at higher risk. At the same time, many people with celiac disease have unexpected symptoms or no symptoms at all. So if someone in your family was diagnosed with celiac disease, you should be tested too.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When someone has celiac disease, eating gluten causes their immune system to attack their small intestine. This damages tissues that help the body absorb nutrients.

Classical celiac disease has very dramatic symptoms that can’t be ignored, like diarrhea; stools that are pale, fatty, and foul-smelling; and weight loss or slow growth in children.

But many people have less obvious symptoms. For example, gastrointestinal symptoms could be mild, like gas or bloating. Other symptoms might seem unrelated, like fatigue, migraine, tingling in the hands or feet, infertility, rash, and certain vitamin deficiencies. Still other people with celiac disease may have no apparent symptoms at all.

Even if you don’t have clear symptoms, screening is important if you think you might be at risk for celiac disease. That’s because living with untreated celiac can cause long-term health problems. It’s been linked to other autoimmune disorders including diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Celiac disease can be diagnosed with a blood test. It can be easily treated by removing all foods with gluten from your diet.

Around one in a hundred people has celiac disease, and some studies estimate as many as 80% of people with celiac aren’t diagnosed. Having a relative with celiac disease increases your risk. Talk with your doctor if you think you should be tested.

Michael J. Shea , MD

Critical Care Medicine

Maui Memorial Medical Center
221 Mahalani Street
Wailuku, HI 96793