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Celiac Disease Triggers Unusual Symptoms

For people with celiac disease, avoiding gluten-containing foods made with wheat, barley or rye is essential for health.

Celiac disease remains mysterious, even to physicians. In this condition the body is unable to tolerate proteins found in gluten, a constituent of wheat, barley and rye grains.

Although there is a genetic susceptibility, we do not know exactly why some people react adversely when exposed to gluten. The cells lining the small intestine become damaged and cannot absorb nutrients properly. This can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies and unusual symptoms.

While most people think of digestive difficulties as the prime symptoms of celiac disease, many other parts of the body also react to gluten. One reader describes a distinctive rash.

Rash Appears When Reader Eats Gluten-Containing Foods:

Q. I have celiac disease, which is gluten intolerance. When I eat something I shouldn’t, I get a red itchy dry rash. No lotion I’ve tried really helps. Only a cortisone cream gives some mild relief. What else could I try to stop the itching? I’d prefer something natural.

A. The answer is completely natural, but it is not easy. As a person with celiac disease, you must avoid ALL foods with gluten (from wheat, barley and rye). Even a tiny bit could be a problem for you.

The typical rash usually associated with celiac disease is called dermatitis herpetiformis. It is extremely itchy. This is just one manifestation of your autoimmune disease. The fact that you are experiencing rash suggests that other bodily systems, including your digestive tract, may be reacting to gluten and putting you in danger. Although it is very difficult to be vigilant about your diet all the time, it could save your life as well as your skin.

Here is another reader’s story:

“Several decades ago I had a persistent problem with cracks at the corners of my mouth. My dentist prescribed a very expensive topical ointment that temporarily relieved the condition.

“When the angular cheilitis was brought to my primary doctor’s attention, he said it was caused by a vitamin B deficiency and prescribed prenatal vitamins for me. This resolved the problem. I was still puzzled, however. When I asked my doctor how I could have a vitamin deficiency even though I ate a well-rounded diet and loved fruits and vegetables, he said that some of us do not absorb nutrients as well as others.

“It turns out that he was right but did not go nearly far enough in trying to uncover the root cause. (I also had slight anemia and some other bothersome chronic problems that were related to nutritional deficits.)

A good diagnosis cleared up many symptoms:

“Twenty years later, I was living in France and being treated for a kidney stone. My French doctors, just by chance, found that I had celiac sprue. Changing my diet by eliminating gluten almost immediately cleared up the myriad problems I had been wrestling with for so many years. My American doctors had been treating me for celiac symptoms for about three decades without ever looking for the cause.

“When I returned to the U.S. in 2000, I asked my American doctor to verify the French diagnosis. His response was puzzlement at the name ‘celiac sprue’ as if I had mentioned some rare exotic disease. He also said he did not know how to test for it!

“One of many lessons here: If you have persistent vitamin or mineral deficiencies, check for malabsorption to try to establish why.”

Symptoms of Celiac Disease:

The symptoms of celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, are many and varied. They include: digestive distress, bloating, abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhea, fatty floating stools that are tan or light gray in color, gas, anemia, fatigue, arthritis or joint pain, muscle cramps, itchy skin rash, osteoporosis, neuropathy (tingling or burning feeling in feet or legs), depression or brain fog, irritability, mouth sores, muscle weakness, infertility and easy bruising.

Doctors can now diagnose celiac disease with blood tests that were not available 40 years ago. You can learn more about the diagnosis and dietary treatment of celiac disease by listening to Show 1221: What Explains the Recent Increase in Celiac Disease? It is an interview with Mayo Clinic doctor Joseph Murray.

Other interviews that may help include Show 1100: What Is the Story on Celiac Disease? and Show 1049: Do You Need a Gluten-Free Diet? That episode features Peter Green, MD, one of the world’s experts on this condition and author of Celiac Disease: The Hidden Epidemic.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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