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Following a gluten-free diet is the most important part of treatment for people with celiac disease. In most cases, following this diet will stop symptoms, heal existing intestinal damage, and prevent further damage. In order to stay well, people with celiac disease must avoid gluten for the rest of their lives. Researchers are now assessing new drug treatments for cases that do not improve with a gluten-free diet.

An Overview of Celiac Disease Treatment

For a person diagnosed with celiac disease, treatment begins with understanding the condition and how it is affected by gluten and following a gluten-free diet. Treatment for celiac disease involves adhering to a gluten-free diet for life. A gluten-free diet is defined as one that excludes wheat, rye, and barley.
Research has shown that a team approach for the treatment of celiac disease is important. Besides the healthcare provider, other people involved with treatment should include a dietitian and a local advocacy group. Consultation with a skilled dietitian is essential. Participation in an advocacy group can be an effective means of promoting adherence to a gluten-free diet and may provide emotional and social support.
Another aspect of celiac disease treatment involves regular checkups with your healthcare provider. He or she will monitor your health, which will help reduce the chances for complications.

Treating Celiac Disease With A Gluten-Free Diet

The most important part of any celiac disease treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet.
When a person is first diagnosed with celiac disease, the healthcare provider will usually ask him or her to work with a dietitian on a gluten-free diet plan. A dietitian is a healthcare professional who specializes in food and nutrition. Someone with celiac disease can learn from a dietitian how to read ingredient lists and identify foods that contain gluten in order to make informed decisions at the grocery store and when eating out.
For most people (up to 80 percent), following this diet as part of their treatment will stop symptoms, heal existing intestinal damage, and prevent further damage due to celiac disease. Improvements begin within days of starting the diet. The small intestine is usually completely healed in three to six months in children and younger adults and within two years for older adults. "Healed" means a person now has villi that can absorb nutrients from food into the bloodstream.
In order to stay well, people with celiac disease must avoid gluten for the rest of their lives. Eating any gluten, no matter how small an amount, can damage the small intestine. The damage will occur in anyone with the disease, including people without noticeable symptoms of celiac disease. Depending on a person's age at diagnosis, some problems will not improve, such as delayed growth and tooth discoloration.
Some people with celiac disease show no improvement on the gluten-free diet. This condition is called unresponsive celiac disease. The most common reason for poor response to this treatment is that small amounts of gluten are still present in the diet. Advice from a dietitian who is skilled in educating patients about the gluten-free diet is essential to achieve the best results.
Rarely, the intestinal injury will continue despite a strictly gluten-free diet. People in this situation have severely damaged intestines that cannot heal. Because their intestines are not absorbing enough nutrients, they may need to receive nutrients directly into their bloodstream through a vein (intravenously). People with this condition may need to be evaluated for complications of the disease.
Researchers are now evaluating drug treatments for unresponsive celiac disease.
(Click Gluten-Free Diet for specific information on this diet for celiac disease.)
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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