How is Coeliac Disease Diagnosed in Children?

Coeliac Disease in Children. Investigation available at Paediatric Gut Investigation ClinicCoeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine, triggered by the ingestion of gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. In individuals with coeliac disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the small intestine upon gluten consumption, leading to the malabsorption of nutrients and a range of gastrointestinal and systemic symptoms. Diagnosing coeliac disease, especially in children, can be a complex process, requiring a combination of clinical evaluation, blood tests, and biopsies. This article delves into the diagnosis of coeliac disease in children, with a focus on the UK context.


Prevalence and Symptoms in Children

In the UK, coeliac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 children, although many cases remain undiagnosed. Early diagnosis is crucial as untreated coeliac disease can lead to serious health complications such as growth retardation, delayed puberty, and an increased risk of other autoimmune conditions.


Common Symptoms in Children

The symptoms of coeliac disease in children can vary widely and may include:

  • Chronic diarrhoea or constipation
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss or failure to gain weight
  • Fatigue and irritability
  • Delayed growth and puberty
  • Anemia
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (a skin rash associated with coeliac disease)

Given the broad spectrum of symptoms, coeliac disease can be mistaken for other gastrointestinal disorders, making accurate diagnosis essential.


Diagnosis Process

Clinical Evaluation

The first step in diagnosing coeliac disease in children typically involves a detailed clinical evaluation. Paediatricians will take a comprehensive medical history, noting any symptoms and their duration. They will also inquire about family history, as coeliac disease has a genetic component and is more common in individuals with a first-degree relative who has the condition.


Blood Tests

Blood tests are a critical component in the diagnostic process for coeliac disease. The primary blood tests used to screen for coeliac disease include:

  1. Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA): This is the most commonly used test for diagnosing coeliac disease. It detects antibodies produced in response to the presence of gluten.
  2. Total Serum IgA: Since individuals with IgA deficiency may have a false negative tTG-IgA test, total IgA levels are also measured.
  3. Endomysial Antibodies (EMA): This test is highly specific for coeliac disease but is usually performed if the tTG-IgA test is positive.
  4. Deamidated Gliadin Peptide (DGP) Antibodies: This test can be useful in children under two years old, where tTG-IgA tests may not be as accurate.


Genetic Testing

Genetic testing for HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes can support the diagnosis. While not definitive (as many people without coeliac disease also carry these genes), the absence of these genetic markers can effectively rule out the condition.


Small Bowel Biopsy

If blood tests suggest coeliac disease, the next step is often a small bowel biopsy, performed via an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist takes small samples (biopsies) from the lining of the small intestine. The biopsies are examined under a microscope for damage to the villi, the tiny hair-like projections that absorb nutrients. In children, the biopsy is typically performed under general anaesthesia to ensure comfort and safety.


Non-invasive Alternatives and Emerging Diagnostics

While the biopsy remains the gold standard for diagnosis, research is ongoing into non-invasive alternatives. For instance, some studies suggest that highly elevated tTG-IgA levels combined with specific symptoms might suffice for a diagnosis without a biopsy. Additionally, capsule endoscopy, which involves swallowing a small, camera-equipped capsule to visualize the small intestine, is being explored as a less invasive option.


The UK Guidelines

In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines for the diagnosis and management of coeliac disease. According to NICE guidelines:

  • Children with symptoms suggestive of coeliac disease should be tested for tTG-IgA antibodies.
  • If tTG-IgA levels are elevated, referral to a pediatric gastroenterologist for further evaluation, including a potential biopsy, is recommended.
  • For children with a high clinical suspicion of coeliac disease but negative tTG-IgA, additional tests such as EMA or DGP antibodies may be conducted.
  • Regular follow-up and monitoring are essential for children diagnosed with coeliac disease to ensure adherence to a gluten-free diet and to address any nutritional deficiencies or complications.


Discover the Common Myths about Coeliac Disease


Post-Diagnosis Management

Once diagnosed, the primary treatment for coeliac disease is a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet. Children diagnosed with coeliac disease should receive education and support from a dietitian specializing in coeliac disease. This includes guidance on reading food labels, avoiding cross-contamination, and ensuring a balanced diet to support growth and development.


Follow-Up Care

Scheduling regular follow-up visits with a healthcare professional is essential to tracking the child’s growth, nutritional status, and adherence to the gluten-free diet. Blood tests to check for nutrient deficiencies and tTG-IgA levels can help assess dietary compliance and intestinal healing.

Education and Support

Support groups and organizations, such as Coeliac UK, provide valuable resources for families. These organisations offer educational materials, advocacy, and community support, helping families navigate the challenges of living with coeliac disease.



Diagnosing coeliac disease in children requires a thorough and systematic approach involving clinical evaluation, blood tests, and often, a small bowel biopsy. In the UK, adherence to NICE guidelines ensures that children receive a timely and accurate diagnosis, followed by appropriate dietary management and support. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital to help prevent complications and to ensure that children with coeliac disease lead healthy, active lives.

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