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Coeliac disease, wheat allergies & gluten sensitivity

Lesley Dobson / 09 September 2014

Thousands of people in the country have coeliac disease or another wheat-related disorder, such as wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity, and the numbers are increasing.

Word gluten written in flour
A growing number of the UK population has an intolerance to gluten

Wheat is a basic part of our diet, yet a growing number of the UK population has an intolerance to gluten, a protein that’s found in wheat, rye and barley. This is coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease that affects about 150,000 people in the UK, although the latest research indicates that only 24% of those with this condition have been diagnosed with it.

A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology earlier this year found that in the UK coeliac disease has increased fourfold over the last 22 years. The reason for the increase may be down to the improvements in diagnosis, including blood tests and more readily available endoscopy examinations, and the fact that patients and doctors are far more aware of the existence of coeliac disease. The study also found that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with coeliac disease. The explanation for this may be simply that fewer men see their GPs about health problems.

If you think you may be one of the thousands of people who have coeliac disease, or one of the other gluten-related conditions, such as wheat allergy and the much-debated non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, but haven’t been diagnosed with it, it’s important to see your GP.

“If you do have one of the conditions related to the gut, it can be very problematic,” says Sarah Sleet, Chief Executive of the charity Coeliac UK. “With coeliac disease there can be some really serious implications if it isn’t treated. And with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, there are major effects on the quality of your life. It’s really important that these conditions are picked up and dealt with appropriately.

“With coeliac disease, what we sometimes find is that people are given a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, but haven’t been tested for irritable bowel syndrome, as they should have been. From a coeliac disease point of view, if you put yourself on a gluten-free diet, don’t tell your doctor and go for testing, they won’t be able to get a proper diagnosis. It’s a major issue in terms of missed diagnoses.”

About coeliac disease

  • This condition affects at least one in 100 people in the UK and Europe.
  • It takes, on average, 13 years to be diagnosed with coeliac disease.
  • If you have coeliac disease and don’t follow a gluten-free diet it can eventually lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, and cancer of the small bowel.
  • Symptoms can include severe diarrhoea and vomiting, which can last for some days. These symptoms can appear within a few hours of eating gluten.
  • At the moment there isn’t a cure for this condition. Treatment is following a strict gluten-free diet, at all times.
  • If a family member has this condition there is a one-in-10 possibility of a close relative developing it.
  • The most common symptoms of coeliac disease are diarrhoea, and poo that is high in fat, and smelly and greasy. You may also have fatigue, weight loss, bloating, stomach pain, and sometimes swollen limbs, hand and feet. You may not have symptoms strong enough to notice if you have mild coeliac disease.

    Useful websites

    Coeliac UK -
    NHS Choices -

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.