Celiac.com 05/03/2016 - How do you know when your child has gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, or celiac disease? If gluten issues run in your family and you know there is a predisposition to having problems with gluten in foods, then you may be alert to signs that it has been passed on to your child. But if you and your biological family members never had problems with it, then you're not expecting gluten to be an issue. Children arrive with a complicated genetic past that we may not always have the details about. We may not know the health history of the families of our child's other parent, or even sometimes our own. We may not know if anyone had reactions to gluten. Because celiac and gluten sensitivities can appear as chameleons, genes for it may be masked as other health issues. Parents may be a carrier and have no identifiable symptoms at all. People may have celiac disease without ever knowing it.
It's complicated to raise a child. When they don't feel well, it's hard to figure out when their health problems are physical, emotional, social, or psychosomatic. When it comes to kids, having a belly ache is a common occurrence. So are a variety of symptoms that are linked to celiac disease or gluten intolerance or sensitivity, like headaches, fatigue, skin issues, depression, or GI track problems. When are signs pointing at the normal wear-and-tear of growing up—and when they are related to a syndrome like celiac disease? It takes a significant period of observation to figure this out.
In our family, Chris never knew he was predisposed to celiac disease until he hit his twenties. Celiac is sneaky—while it can occur within people at any age, sometimes it doesn't show up until people get a bit older. As a child, he grew up on sandwiches, cookies, macaroni and cheese, and Grandma's home-made bread. When he had a tummy upset, as good mom I'd bring him chicken noodle soup and saltines. I never knew about celiac disease. My family came from a long line of gluten aficionados. As he hit adolescence and his teen years, signs of gluten intolerance emerged, only we didn't know that's what they were. Few parents link together migraines, skin problems with belly upsets and food "allergies." Chris's doctor dismissed his symptoms as independent, routine growing-up conditions without putting all the pieces of the puzzle together to realize that they were actually all a part of a larger celiac syndrome. It was only when he took a road trip and visited his father's sister and his cousins that he learned about the family's predisposition to celiac. His grandma always had stomach problems, I recall. She lived at a time and place where regular folks living in small towns were simply unaware of conditions such as celiac. As the old saw goes, you can't know what you don't know. In hindsight, she clearly had gluten issues. The gene seems to have been latent in her children, but passed on to take more active forms into the next generation of Chris and his cousin. It's confusing, because one child in the family can have a severe case of celiac while a full-blood sibling may have no sign of it at all! If he hadn't taken that road trip and stopped to visit his aunt, he may never have known that he had celiac. Upon that realization, suddenly everything made sense. All of his erratic symptoms were actually a picture-perfect portrayal of someone with celiac disease!
We learned a bit about the disease, went to the store looking for gluten-free foods and quickly began modifying his diet. Since his MD couldn't figure out what was making him feel so bad, and if cutting out gluten could make him feel better, we decided that was a course worth pursuing. He felt better immediately. He has never been officially tested for celiac disease, although that would probably have been a better course of action. At that point in time, we simply didn't know about the testing options.
Testing options have improved significantly over the last decade. The diagnosis of celiac disease can be done with a biopsy of the small intestine mucosa. Blood or serological tests are also helpful but less definitive. The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center finds that the serum anti-tissue transglutaminase (tTG-IgA) is a widely used antibody blood test for screening for celiac disease, as is a total serum IgA test. The total serum test bolsters the reliability of the tTG test. A newer version of an old anti-gliadin antibody test has been developed called DPG or deamidated gliadin peptides test. Tissue transglutaminase (TTG) measures, endomysial antibody (IgA antibody to endomysium EMA) are recommended by many experts, while formerly used antigliadin antibody tests (AGA) are not as widely used.
About 95% of people with celiac disease have the HLA-DQ2 gene and most of the remaining 5% have the HLA-DQ8 gene. Genetic testing can determine if someone has one or both of these genes. If someone has the gene it means they are at risk of developing celiac disease, but it does not mean that you necessarily have it. A positive genetic test should be followed up with a celiac blood panel to determine if someone has celiac disease. Celiac disease experts recommend family member testing as a proactive approach to diagnosis and then follow up with tests every 2-3 years or if potential symptoms start to emerge. They note that it is possible for someone to initially have a negative test result, but then test positive years later. This is worthwhile to know when trying to figure out if a child has celiac disease or not. It also means that re-testing may be a necessary process, since both the child's body and the disease propensity may change over time.
What are warning signs that a child may have celiac disease? According to the North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and other celiac experts, there are both gastrointestinal and other symptoms to look for—symptoms that one may not logically associate with gluten. But remember that many of these symptoms may exist independently in children and have no relationship to having celiac disease at all! This is what makes trying to figure out whether or not a child has it extremely challenging.
Once a determination is made that a child has celiac disease or is highly predisposed to be gluten intolerant or sensitive, changing the child's exposure to gluten in foods becomes of utmost importance. The problem is, most people aren't aware of gluten issues in general, and they particularly aren't thinking of it occurring in children. As Kay Chick (2014) describes in her article, there are many things that parents and teachers can do to proactively prevent problems in routine situations. She points out that many school cafeterias aren't equipped to safely serve children who have to go gluten-free. Most parents don't realize that making accommodations for children with celiac disease are assured under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; seventy-four percent of parents who participated in her study reported their children did not have a 504 plan or written into an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to help everyone make accommodations for their celiac disease. Children with celiac may also be eligible for services under the Individuals Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if it has an impact on their ability to learn.
Social events like birthday parties, camps, and field trips may expose children to gluten in foods and provide no alternatives for those who can't eat them. Sharing food is a common childhood occurrence, but an experience that leaves celiac kids out unless they are sure the food is safe. Going to another child's house to play or for a sleep-over may be an extra-big deal for a celiac kid. When the team goes out for a pizza party or ice cream cones after a game, the child with celiac has to be extremely careful. It helps enormously when adults and people in supervisory roles understand that when children need to avoid gluten, it is not because it is a choice—it is a health necessity. While a public awareness campaign to help people understand that there are children (and adults) who have to avoid gluten is underway, there's still a long way to go. Children need to learn self-advocacy skills to keep themselves healthy. This is sometimes hard to do when interacting with parents, teachers, and other adults who think that they understand the complications associated with needing to be gluten-free—and they actually don't.
Going gluten-free doesn't have to be hard, but when it comes to children and youth, often it is. From identifying that celiac disease could be a problem, to diagnosing it, to addressing it in one's daily lifestyle, children are a special interest population. In order to help celiac children to live long and healthy lives, it begins with educating adults, most of whom will never have to personally go gluten-free. Speaking out on behalf of a celiac kid is an important thing to do. Adults in all professions need to learn what celiac is and how to institute celiac-safe strategies into their organizations. Even if they aren't affected, adults need to realize how their decisions and behavior may adversely impact children.
Our youngest citizens count on adults to always be looking out for their best interests. Speak with your local schools, recreation groups, and youth-oriented civic organizations to make sure the leaders understand that the chances are high that they are serving children with celiac disease. Help them to understand that they should learn more about what it is, that they should make sure eating arrangements always take into consideration children with special dietary needs, and have food alternatives readily available. Every parent would expect the same concern and attentive care if their child had celiac. And as a community, aren't all children "our" children?
For more information, see our book, Going Gluten Free (Norlights Press 2015). Yvonne Vissing has been appointed by the United Nations to be a Policy Chair for Child Rights, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Chick, Kay. The Educational, Social, and Family Challenges of Children with Celiac Disease: What Parents Should Know. 3/19/2014. Celiac.com
- Children's Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation (CDHNF). www.cdhnf.org
- Diagnosis and Treatment of Celiac Disease in Children. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 2005; Volume 40, Number 1 (Jan): 1-19.
- National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. http://www.celiaccentral.org/
- North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology
- and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) http://www.naspghan.org//files/documents/pdfs/medical-resources/celiac/CeliacGuidelineSummary.pdf
- Raising Our Celiac Kids (ROCK). https://www.celiac.com/articles/563/1/ROCK-Raising-Our- celiac-Kids---National- celiac-Disease-Support-Group/Page1.html
- University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Celiac Research