Coeliac disease - Complications 

Complications of coeliac disease 

If you have coeliac disease, it is crucial you do not eat any gluten. If you have untreated or undiagnosed coeliac disease and are still eating gluten, several complications can occur.

It is a common misconception that eating a little gluten will not harm you. Eating even tiny amounts can trigger symptoms of coeliac disease and increase your risk of developing the complications outlined below.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis causes your bones to become brittle and weak. Your bones need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to stay dense and strong.

If you have coeliac disease, you have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis due to the effect on your digestion. The damage gluten causes to your intestines (gut) prevents enough nutrients being absorbed into your bones from the food that you eat.

Osteoporosis usually causes no obvious symptoms until a person has an accidental fall or similar and ends up breaking a weakened bone.

Osteoporosis can be treated with supplements that strengthen the bones, such as vitamin D and calcium. More severe cases of osteoporosis may require medication.

Read more about the treatment of osteoporosis.

Malnutrition

As coeliac disease causes your digestive system to work less effectively, severe cases can sometimes lead to a critical lack of nutrients in your body. This is known as malnutrition, and can mean your body is unable to function normally or recover from wounds and infections.

If you have severe malnutrition, you may become fatigued, dizzy and confused. Your muscles may begin to waste away, and you may find it difficult to keep warm. In children, malnutrition can cause stunted growth and delayed development.

Treatment for malnutrition usually involves increasing the number of calories in your diet and taking supplements.

Read more about the treatment of malnutrition.

Lactose intolerance

If you have coeliac disease, you are more likely to also develop lactose intolerance, whereby your body lacks the enzyme to digest milk sugar (lactose) found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance causes symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort.

Unlike gluten in coeliac disease, lactose in lactose intolerance does not damage your body. Rather, you may get some gastrointestinal symptoms when you take foods containing lactose, as you can’t digest it properly.

Lactose intolerance can be effectively treated by not eating and drinking dairy products that contain lactose. You may also need to take calcium supplements because, as dairy products are an important source of calcium, you will need to compensate for not eating them.

Read more about the treatment of lactose intolerance.

Cancer

Some research has suggested that having coeliac disease can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer, including bowel cancer and lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system).

The same research found people with coeliac disease have a lower risk of developing lung and breast cancer, although the reasons for this are unclear.

It is estimated that people with coeliac disease are twice as likely to develop bowel cancer as the general population. However, this is still a very small increase in risk: only one in every 200 people with coeliac disease will develop bowel cancer in the first 10 years after diagnosis. As age is an independent risk factor for bowel cancer, your risk of developing bowel cancer increases as you get older, in line with the general population.

The risk of developing cancer is thought to be highest during the first year after diagnosis, before dropping to normal as your gluten-free diet starts to take effect.

Whether or not you have coeliac disease, it is important to be aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer, which include:

  • blood in stools (faeces)
  • unexplained weight loss 
  • changes in your normal bowel habit lasting more than four weeks 

See your GP if you develop these symptoms.

Page last reviewed: 02/05/2012

Next review due: 02/05/2014

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Levitation said on 13 July 2014

I bet this page has scared the bejesus out of a good few people considering that dairy intolerance is associated with being a coeliac and so bloating, constipation, and diahorea, ie "changes in your normal bowel habit lasting more than four weeks" will be quite normal.

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Blue_280 said on 04 January 2013

Jackie May - I'm 30 years old and was diagnosed this week, although after speaking to my mother it seems I have had the condition since childhood but the doctors didn't pick it up. After Christmas last year I went on weight watchers diet. I was 11 stone and wanted to get down to 9 and a half which is in the middle of my weight range for my age and height (according to the NHS website). While I was on it I noticed that all my symptoms cleared up and I put it down to eating more fruit and veg. When I look at my food diary though I was actually cutting out a of a lot of foods that contain gluten, bread, cakes etc. There were days in the beginning when I went to bed and still felt a little hungry, but I modified the way i used my points so that I had 'free' fruits to snack on during the day and then I would use a couple of the 'extra' points everyday instead of using them all in one go and binging. You can still have treats as well, aslong as you count your points. I got to my goal weight 2 weeks before my wedding in June. But, as soon as I decided my weight didn't matter so much and started eating bread more often and non-weight watchers cakes, my symptoms came straight back and were bad enough for me to go to my GP which then led to the diagnosis. My point is that I know Weight Watchers works (one of my friends has gone from a size 24 to a size 12 in just over 12 months which proves it even more so) and it was obiously a good choice for me as far as my symptoms go so I think you should look into it if you're serious about wanting to lose weight. Good luck with your wedding planning!

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jacki may said on 10 October 2012

Im coeliacs was diagnosed in 2007 struggle with my weight i wiegh 12 stone and getting married in a year or 2 please please help

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