A strict, lifelong gluten-free diet is the only way to manage celiac disease. In addition to wheat, foods that contain gluten include:
- Graham flour
- Spelt (a form of wheat)
Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian, who can help you plan a healthy gluten-free diet.
Once you remove gluten from your diet, inflammation in your small intestine generally begins to lessen — usually within several weeks, though you may start to feel better in just a few days. Complete healing and regrowth of the villi may take several months to several years. Healing in the small intestine tends to occur more quickly in children than adults.
If you accidentally eat a product that contains gluten, you may experience abdominal pain and diarrhea. Some people experience no signs or symptoms after eating gluten, but this doesn't mean it's not harmful to them. Even trace amounts of gluten in your diet can be damaging, whether or not they cause signs or symptoms.
Hidden gluten can be present in foods, medications and nonfood products, including:
- Modified food starch, preservatives and food stabilizers
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
- Herbal and nutritional supplements
- Lipstick products
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Envelope and stamp glue
Vitamin and mineral supplements
If your nutritional deficiencies are severe, your doctor or dietitian may recommend taking vitamin and mineral supplements. You may need to supplement your levels of:
- Vitamin B-12
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
Vitamins and supplements are usually taken in pill form. If your digestive tract has trouble absorbing vitamins, your doctor may give them by injection. You need to be sure that the vitamins and supplements are gluten-free.
If you have celiac disease, you will need medical follow-up to make sure your symptoms have responded to a gluten-free diet. Doctors will also want to be sure you are getting the support you need to maintain the diet for life. They will use blood tests to monitor your response. The results of these tests, which are primarily designed as a way to detect celiac disease, usually become negative once you have been gluten-free for six to 12 months. If test results remain positive, then your doctor may try to find the reason, the most common being unintentional exposure to gluten in your diet.
However, these tests are not perfect, and even if the results become negative, it is possible that you could still be exposed to a significant amount of gluten and continue to have symptoms and damage to your intestines.
If you continue to have symptoms, or your symptoms recur, you may need a follow-up endoscopy with biopsies to ensure that healing has occurred. Adults typically have a greater need for follow-up testing, although children may require it, too. Some doctors recommend a routine re-biopsy if you are diagnosed in adulthood, as healing is often quite slow and uncertain.
It also can be helpful to follow up with an expert dietitian for assistance in adapting to, and maintaining, a healthy, nutritious, gluten-free diet.
Medications to control intestinal inflammation
If your small intestine is severely damaged, your doctor may recommend steroids to control inflammation. Steroids can ease severe signs and symptoms of celiac disease while the intestine heals.
If you have this itchy, blistering skin rash that sometimes accompanies celiac disease, your doctor may recommend a skin medication (dapsone) along with the gluten-free diet.
Refractory celiac disease
If you have refractory celiac disease, you may continue to have severe symptoms, or your symptoms may lessen but then relapse. In either case, your small intestine does not heal. When this happens, you likely will require evaluation in a specialized center. Refractory celiac disease can be quite serious and there is currently no proven treatment.
People with refractory celiac disease should be treated by experts. There may be several causes for this condition. Doctors will often use steroid therapy — either a topical budesonide or systemic steroids such as prednisone. Sometimes, they will use the same medications used to treat other conditions.
Potential future treatments
While the only proven therapy for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet, it is not perfect. People with celiac disease may often be accidentally exposed to gluten, possibly causing severe symptoms.
Several treatments are in development for celiac disease. Some try to neutralize or bind to gluten. Others address the barrier of the intestine, blocking the leakiness that gluten can trigger. Still others target the body's immune system. Researchers have also been trying to genetically modify wheat, but have not yet been successful.
None of these treatments is likely to be approved within the next two to three years. However, given the number of different approaches, there is a good chance that there will be additional treatments available for celiac disease in the future.
There are no proven treatments that assist with celiac disease. Enzyme therapies that claim to digest gluten may be available in health food stores or other outlets, but there is no scientific evidence that they are effective in treating celiac disease.