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Expert: Coeliac Disease and Children

Expert: Coeliac Disease and Children

Coeliac Disease is a common digestive condition. When people with this condition eat gluten, this results in damage to the lining of the small intestine, which stops the body properly absorbing nutrients. 

But with the trend for gluten-free diets among the general population, there has been growing confusion around what Coeliac Disease is, and how symptoms can be safely controlled. Sonya Sheils, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Coeliac Society of Ireland, is here to give us more information:

Coeliac Disease is estimated to affect 1% of the Irish population (over 47,500 people). It is an auto-immune disease, which prevents those affected from digesting gluten: A protein found in wheat, barley and rye.  The disease can manifest itself at any stage in a person’s lifetime.

Symptoms vary from person to person and are dependent on age. Typical symptoms of the disease in infants include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Anaemia
  • Bloated Belly
  • Failure to Thrive (not reaching recognised standards of growth.) 

Older children may also experience lethargy, mouth ulcers and delayed puberty. The classical picture of the baby with failure-to-thrive is rarely seen in Ireland, as all milk formulae and most processed foods for children under 6 months are gluten free.

Getting Diagnosed

If you're concerned that your child is experiencing symptoms; particularly if there is a family history of coeliac disease, you should speak with your GP.  A simple blood test for antibodies is the first step to diagnosis. It’s essential a child is on a gluten-containing diet for the test to be accurate, so don't cut out gluten before visiting your doctor.

If the test is indicative of Coeliac Disease, then your child should be referred to a consultant Gastroenterologist for a biopsy.

Adapting to Diagnosis

A diagnosis of Coeliac Disease can be daunting; as parents of coeliac children need to strictly control their child’s diet, ensuring the school, crèche and parents of other children don’t inadvertently give them a product with gluten. We always recommend a visit to a dietician post-diagnosis, to help get to grips with a healthy gluten-free diet for a growing child.

The Coeliac Society supports parents to make life as easy as possible.  We publish an annual Food List, containing all gluten free products widely available in Irish supermarkets.

The Society is also currently rolling out a parents programme which we hope will include local support groups; a presentation you can give to child’s school, and a buddy system through which parents of newly diagnosed children can speak to parents in a similar situation.

Simple tips to help you and your child adapt:

  • Join the Coeliac Society. As the national charity providing advice and support to those affected by Coeliac Disease, we are here to help. Our annual Food List contains over 6,000 gluten free products. By joining the Society you can avail of this List, monthly updates, plus access to our support team.

  • Communicate with your child’s crèche/ school so that they are aware of the diagnosis. The Coeliac Society have a letter which you can give to your child’s teacher/minder explaining the basics of the disease and information on avoiding cross contamination.

  • Prepare your kitchen. Gluten free food can be contaminated by gluten containing products like flour, and bread. It’s a great idea to use separate utensils for gluten-free cooking; and always use a separate toaster or invest in toaster bags. Clean down areas before making a gluten free meal, and invest in separate butter, jam etc. for your coeliac child. Double dipping the butter knife will contaminate these products if others are spreading onto gluten containing bread.

  • Empower your child by helping them understand their condition and diet. We are often amazed by how well children adapt post-diagnosis. Many have been feeling unwell, and are happy to learn how to feel better.

  • Don’t isolate your child.  Birthday parties may be difficult to navigate at first, but the organising parent may be happy to provide gluten free treats with some notice.  One of our junior members was delighted when her best friend opted for a gluten free birthday cake so she wouldn’t feel left out.

  • Christmas, Easter and Halloween can be treat focused occasions. Don’t panic! The Society produce seasonal Goody Lists with details of gluten free treats.

  • Hidden gluten. While gluten needs to be ingested to cause harm; be wary of play-dohs, many of which are not gluten free, as smaller children may put them in their mouth.

There is plenty more information about Coeliac Disease on The Coeliac Society's website: coeliac.ie or on 01 872 1471.
Annual membership to the Coeliac Society costs just €30 a year, which gives you access to heaps of useful information and advice including a dedicated helpline, Food Lists, and access to local support groups.

This article is part of a new series looking at different conditions which affect children and families; getting expert advice on how to spot the signs, and manage symptoms. There'll be plenty more in the coming weeks in our child health section; but for now check out Diabetes, and How To Recognise The Signs.


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