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Celiac Disease

What is it?

boy holding a sandwich

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can affect children and adults alike. Eating or being exposed to (touching, smelling, etc.) gluten containing products, such as wheat, barley, and rye, can set off an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten inhibits the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients found in food and can lead to many different complications including malnutrition and, if left untreated, eventual starvation (Celiac Sprue Association, 2011).

There is a huge variance in symptoms for celiac disease. Listed below are some of the more common complaints and nutrient deficiencies ("Celiac Disease").

Nutrient Deficiencies:
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Vitamins A, D, E, K
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamins B 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 12
  • Vitamin C
  • Abdominal cramping/bloating
  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Energy loss
  • Fatigue
  • Infertility
  • Irritable bowel
  • Joint pain
  • Mouth sores
  • Tooth enamel defects
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss

While the symptoms listed are the most common, there are many other possible symptoms such as joint discomfort, frequent vomiting, and loss of hair (Presutti, 2007). The cause of celiac disease is unknown, though it is believed to be genetic. There are three things in the identification of celiac disease:

  1. There must be a genetic disposition. The risk of having celiac disease is much higher if a parent or sibling has the disease. Family members who have an autoimmune disease have a 25% increased risk of celiac disease.
  2. There must be a “trigger”. Triggers vary from person to person and include, but are not limited to, going through puberty, changing a baby’s diet from baby food to solid food, having surgery, or increased gluten intake.
  3. There is gluten in a person’s diet. If a person does not eat and never has eaten gluten, it is impossible for them to develop celiac disease. (Celiac Sprue Association, 2011).
peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Learning Support

Celiac disease, by itself, does not qualify a student for special education services. The symptoms must be severe enough that it affects the child’s education, but celiac disease can affect a student’s ability to learn. Celiac disease in not a food allergy. Allergies can lessen or go away or over time but celiac disease will not go away and it is important to remember it is also not just wheat intolerance. In extreme cases, when a person with celiac disease ingests or even touches a product with gluten in it, a reaction can cause serious complications and occasionally even lead to death (Celiac Sprue Association, 2011). Having this knowledge will help school personal make careful choices of classroom food activities.

Since the symptoms of celiac vary, teaching strategies must be designed to meet individual needs. Learn which unique accommodations are necessary. Identify action to address student’s depression, pain, or exhaustion.

Effects of Celiac


A common effect of being diagnosed with celiac disease is depression. Depression can impair the student’s concentration, focus, and memory. It may be helpful to give the student extra time on assigned tasks, frequent but gentle reminders to stay on task, and copies of notes from the class.


Another less common effect of celiac disease is severe joint pain. In physical education classes, activities may need to be adjusted. Be sensitive to the pain. Some students may not want to talk about their pain, so watch for signs, such as flinching or frequent stops in activities.


It is also very important to be aware that attendance might be an issue for students with celiac disease. There may be medical emergencies and/or meetings with specialists and dieticians. The student may have severe exhaustion with increased absenteeism. Work with the student to help make up the vital information missed while absent. (Celiac Sprue Association, 2011).

References and Websites

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