Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 March 2007
Coeliac disease is a lifelong intolerance to the gluten found in wheat, barley and rye, and some patients are also sensitive to oats. The disease is genetically determined, with 10% of the first-degree relatives affected and 75% of monozygotic twins being concordant. Of the patients with coeliac disease 95% are human leucocyte antigen (HLA)-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 positive. Characteristically, the jejunal mucosa becomes damaged by a T-cell-mediated autoimmune response that is thought to be initiated by a 33-mer peptide fragment in A2 gliadin, and patients with this disorder have raised levels of anti-endomysium and tissue transglutaminase antibodies in their blood. Coeliac disease is the major diagnosable food intolerance and, with the advent of a simple blood test for case finding, prevalence rates are thought to be approximately 1:100. Classically, the condition presented with malabsorption and failure to thrive in infancy, but this picture has now been overtaken by the much more common presentation in adults, usually with non-specific symptoms such as tiredness and anaemia, disturbance in bowel habit or following low-impact bone fractures. Small intestinal biopsy is necessary for diagnosis and shows a characteristically flat appearance with crypt hypoplasia and infiltration of the epithelium with lymphocytes. Diet is the key to management and a gluten-free diet effectively cures the condition. However, this commitment is lifelong and many aisles in the supermarket are effectively closed to individuals with coeliac disease. Compliance can be monitored by measuring antibodies in blood, which revert to negative after 6–9 months. Patients with minor symptoms, who are found incidentally to have coeliac disease, often ask whether it is necessary to adhere to the diet. Current advice is that dietary adherence is necessary to avoid the long-term complications, which are, principally, osteoporosis and small bowel lymphoma. However, risk of these complications diminishes very considerably in patients who are on a gluten-free diet.