May is Celiac Awareness Month: What is it?

cealiacawernessCeliac Awareness Month 2014 begins on Thursday, May 1st,  and is supported by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (and other relevant organizations). This event raises awareness about celiac disease, and highlights the work of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) which provides support for those affected. The NFCA, in collaboration with scientists and other organizations, also supports research into celiac disease.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.  It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.  2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease.

Long Term Health Effects

Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems. These include the development of other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.

Treatment

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer. Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.

Undiagnosed or Untreated Celiac Disease Can Lead to Other Long-term Health Conditions:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Early onset osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Intestinal lymphomas and other GI cancers (malignancies)
  • Gall bladder malfunction
  • Neurological manifestations, including ataxia, epileptic seizures, dementia, migraine, neuropathy, myopathy and multifocal leucoencephalopathy
  • Other autoimmune disorders

Why is it Important for Those with Celiac Disease to Wear a Medical ID?

There’s been a long-standing debate among among adults with celiac disease of the necessity of wearing a medical ID bracelet. A number of consider it a non-life threatening situation and therefore write off the notion of wearing a medical ID, while others would never do without it.  For many, the decision will depend on the degree of the gluten intolerance.

However, adults with celiac disease should wear a medical ID at all times.  For them, eating gluten can result in some hours or days of stomach distress. Every episode catapults them one step closer to the other health conditions  noted above.

In prescription and over-the-counter medicines, fillers (also called “inactive ingredients” or “excipients”) are added to the active drug. Fillers provide shape and bulk for tablets and capsules, aid in water absorption (helping the tablet to disintegrate), and serve other purposes as well.  Fillers can be derived from any starch source, including corn, potatoes, tapioca and wheat.

Unfortunately, very few medications are labeled as gluten-free.  Inactive ingredients may be listed on the box or the package insert, but it is difficult if not impossible (even for pharmacists) to tell if these are derived from gluten.

If a celiac is an accident or else unable to converse for themselves, a medical ID bracelet can ensure a medical emergency isn’t further complicated by being subjected to, ingesting, or becoming injected intravenously using unnecessary gluten.

Children  with celiac disease should wear a medical ID bracelet at all times.  There are reasons other than medical emergencies when an ID would be helpful.  For example, your preschool aged child with celiac would not likely be able to let the teacher know that he/she cannot have wheat or gluten.  Yes, the teacher should already know, but there may be parents or other teachers substituting who might not be aware.  A celiac bracelet would make it perfectly clear.  Also, your older child may find themselves in a situation where they go to a friend’s home and are offered snacks.  Some adults may not take a child seriously when he/she says that they cannot have gluten, but showing the medical ID bracelet would avoid any second-guessing.

Sources: Celiac Disease Foundation, National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, About.com: Celiac Disease & Gluten Sensitivity

 

About Amanda Beck

Amanda Beck writes for American Medical ID on a variety of topics relating to health care and healthy living, especially for those whose medical conditions warrant an emergency ID.