About one in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, this figure includes adults and children, and many more may be yet to be fully diagnosed. Although coeliac disease is often thought to be a form of food intolerance or allergy, this is not the case. In fact, coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system reacts badly when gluten is consumed and effectively attacks its own body tissues. This means that when gluten is eaten, in foods such as bread, pasta or cake, the lining of the small bowel becomes damaged and a range of symptoms occur.
Here are some of the main symptoms of coeliac disease (although it is important to note that not everyone is affected by all of the symptoms):
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- Nausea, heartburn and indigestion
- Wind, constipation and diarrhoea
- Frequent mouth ulcers
- Loss of hair
- Skin rashes and dermatitis
- Deficiencies of vitamins B12, iron or folic acid
- Joint or bone pain
Babies and children can have the disease too, with the symptoms in babies often starting after they are weaned on to cereals that contain gluten. Children sometimes suffer from additional symptoms, such as muscle wasting in their legs and arms, failing to put on weight, a lot of bloating in their stomach and being irritable.
If you think your child could be affected, then it’s essential to have the disease properly diagnosed by a doctor or medical professional, and subsequently take steps to remove gluten from their diet.
It’s not much fun for anyone to suddenly discover that the foods they normally eat make them ill. But if your child is diagnosed as suffering from coeliac disease, it’s essential that you take the necessary steps to remove gluten from their diet. Although it can be hard work in the first instance and a lot to get your head around, there are a good range of gluten-free products available these days, which makes feeding your child easier.
In addition, everyone with coeliac disease is entitled to receive gluten-free products, such as gluten-free breads, pasta and flour, on prescription. Having coeliac disease doesn’t mean children won’t get a healthy diet – far from it – but you may need to put a bit of extra thought and work into mealtimes, especially if the rest of the family can eat gluten as normal.
For example, if the rest of the family are coeliac disease-free, you may need to take extra safety precautions to ensure that food isn’t accidentally contaminated with gluten. You may want to use different boards for cutting gluten and gluten-free bread and even different toasters to toast the bread in (it sounds astonishing, but even a crumb of bread from a loaf containing gluten can have an effect on someone). It’s also useful to set aside separate areas of the kitchen in which you can prepare gluten and gluten-free foods.
It will be necessary to inform your child’s school that they have coeliac disease and it may be easier to give them packed lunches, rather than school dinners. In the long-term, and as children get older, you can help by explaining the details of the disease to them so that they become more aware of how gluten affects them if they eat it and why it should be avoided.