Can you suddenly develop coeliac disease?

Unfortunately, yes. It is possible to receive a coeliac disease diagnosis all of a sudden. If you don’t get diagnosed with coeliac disease during your childhood, that doesn’t mean it won’t affect you later in life. Coeliac disease can manifest itself many years down the track. 

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an abnormal immune system response to gluten (a protein present in wheat, rye, barley, and brewer’s yeast) consumption. It is a lifelong disorder which affects approximately 1 in 70 Australians.

Coeliac disease can damage the lining of your small intestine and impede nutrient absorption. If left untreated, it can result in serious long-term complications such as lactose intolerance, GI cancers, and neurological disorders (including dementia and epileptic seizures).

Symptoms of coeliac disease include diarrhoea, constipation, weight loss, fatigue, bloating, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Which age group does coeliac disease affect the most?

Coeliac disease can affect anyone, regardless of their age. This means you can receive a diagnosis of coeliac disease at any stage in your life.  

Coeliac disease was initially thought to affect only children and young adults, but that is not true. The majority of adults who get diagnosed with coeliac disease are between 30 and 45 years old. Approximately 25 percent of individuals with coeliac disease are at least 60 years of age. 

A two-part study conducted in 1974 strongly suggests older adults have a higher tendency for coeliac disease. Researchers took the blood samples of more than 3,500 adults that year and took another one 15 years later. Their conclusion: the number of coeliac disease cases doubled during that 15-year span. In 1974, one in 501 individuals had coeliac disease. In 1989, one in 219 people had the disorder. 

There is another study which tested tissue transglutaminase (tTG, a biomarker for coeliac disease) antibody levels in the blood of various individuals at two different points in time. Surprisingly, 49 people who tested negative in the first test received a positive diagnosis in their second test.

These two studies dispel the notion that coeliac disease affects only children. Receiving a diagnosis of coeliac disease much later on in life is not unusual.

What are the risk factors of coeliac disease?

You have a higher risk of getting diagnosed with coeliac disease if one of your family members (parent, child, or sibling) has it. Other risk factors include having other medical conditions like:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Down syndrome or Turner syndrome
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease
  • Microscopic colitis
  • Addison’s disease  

The abovementioned factors may be uncontrollable, but the good news is that there’s one particular risk factor that you have full control over: your diet.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people who receive a positive coeliac disease diagnosis don’t consume enough fibre, calcium, iron, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients can help lower your risk of contracting this disease.

What other factors increase my chances of having coeliac disease later in life?

Aside from your genetic background, environmental factors such as pollutants and contaminants could also play a role. According to coeliac disease specialist Dr. Alessio Fasano, these factors compromise your immune system and make you susceptible to coeliac disease.

How do I get tested for coeliac disease?

If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms linked to coeliac disease—diarrhoea, bloating, nausea, unexplained weight loss, to name a few—you may want to consult your doctor. He or she may ask you to take any of the following tests to determine if you have coeliac disease:

  • Blood test: Also known as coeliac serology, this test measures your blood antibody levels. If your levels are high, you may have coeliac disease. However, this test isn’t conclusive. Your doctor may ask you to undergo a biopsy to rule out coeliac disease.  
  • Biopsy: Your physician will insert a long and narrow tube into your mouth until it reaches your small intestine. He will then take tiny samples from your small intestine and analyse them for coeliac disease. You will undergo light anaesthetic sedation for this procedure, which typically takes 10 minutes. 
  • Gene test: This is another blood test which seeks to identify the presence of the genetic markers HLA DQ2 and HLA DQ8. Between 95 and 99 percent of individuals with coeliac disease have one of them. However, a positive result doesn’t always automatically mean you have or will have coeliac disease. For instance, 30 to 50 percent of New Zealanders who have one of these genes never develop coeliac disease. 

Bottom line: if you suspect you may have coeliac disease, get tested as soon as possible. You have a higher risk of developing another autoimmune disorder if you receive a positive coeliac disease diagnosis at an advanced age.

What should I do if I get diagnosed with coeliac disease?

The steps you need to take if you get a coeliac disease diagnosis are standard, regardless of your age.

  1. Schedule an appointment with your physician to know the next steps. If you want to be 100% sure of your diagnosis, you may want to get a second opinion for confirmation.
  2. Book an appointment with your dietitian. A dietitian can provide you with the proper guidance and information on the gluten-free diet. He or she can also offer dietary tips to help you manage your coeliac disease successfully.

Unfortunately, coeliac disease is a life-long condition. The best way to manage it is to follow a strict, gluten-free diet. 

Your sudden coeliac disease diagnosis isn’t the end

If you receive a sudden coeliac disease diagnosis, don’t fret! Professionals who specialise in coeliac disease can help you manage your condition so you can enjoy life to the fullest. If you receive a positive diagnosis, sticking to a gluten-free diet can help you manage coeliac disease successfully. 

Need our help?

Do you need professional dietary advice to help you manage your coeliac disease? Call us at (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm on weekdays to set up an appointment with one of our dietitians or nutritionists. Alternatively, you can send us an enquiry and we will get back to you as soon as we can.