Bloating, stomach pains, diarrhoea – just some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which many don’t realise could also be a warning sign of coeliac disease.
Charity Coeliac UK is urging people who have these symptoms to ask their GP for a blood test to rule out the autoimmune disease.
It said 97% of people don’t realise IBS symptoms could be coeliac disease, and warned that if left untreated it could cause a number of complications, some of which include anaemia, osteoporosis and unexplained infertility.
As many as one in four people with coeliac disease were previously misdiagnosed with IBS, according to the charity, so it’s important to raise awareness and get tested.
What Is Coeliac Disease?
Coeliac disease is not an allergy or an intolerance like some people believe, but a lifelong autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system damages the lining of the small bowel when gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is eaten.
Gluten is often present in pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals, most types of bread, certain types of sauces and some ready meals. Most beers are also made from barley. Gluten can be found in fish fingers, sausages, gravies, stock cubes, soy sauce and even in some chocolate.
If a person with coeliac disease accidentally eats gluten, they are likely to become very ill within a few hours and might have severe diarrhoea and vomiting, which can last several days.
One in 100 people in the UK are estimated to have coeliac disease but of these, only 30% are currently diagnosed, according to Coeliac UK, meaning there are nearly half a million people in the UK thought to be living with the disease undiagnosed.
Undiagnosed coeliac disease can cause a variety of symptoms, impacting people in different ways. Typical signs of it include:
:: Nausea and vomiting
:: Stomach cramps
:: Weight loss/gain
:: Regular mouth ulcers
:: Skin rash
Anyone who has symptoms such as ongoing bloating, diarrhoea or constipation and has been given a diagnosis of IBS but hasn’t been tested for coeliac disease should ask their GP to test them for it, said Norma McGough, Coeliac UK’s director of policy, research and campaigns.
“However, it is essential to keep eating gluten until all tests are completed as otherwise these tests may give a false negative result,” she added.
The average time it takes for someone to get a diagnosis of coeliac disease is 13 years from the onset of symptoms. By then, they may already be suffering with added complications caused by the disease. These may include neurological conditions such as gluten ataxia and neuropathy, and although rare, there is an increased risk of small bowel cancer and intestinal lymphoma.
“The first step to diagnosing coeliac disease is a simple, inexpensive blood test done in primary care, but thousands of people are not getting the necessary testing and are being left undiagnosed including those with IBS symptoms,” said McGough.
“This not only causes years of unnecessary suffering but also wasted costs to the NHS with repeated appointments and investigations.”
Coeliac UK’s online assessment, based on NICE guidelines, is designed to give people greater confidence to seek further medical advice from their GP.
Upon completion of the assessment, the respondent will receive an email with their results, which will indicate whether their symptoms are potentially linked to coeliac disease and they need to get tested.
Unfortunately there is no cure and no medication for coeliac disease, the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life.
People medically diagnosed with it can access some gluten-free staple foods on prescription, but access to these depends on where they live. Some Clinical Commissioning Groups in England have now reduced or stopped prescribing items.