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Treating Celiac Disease in Children

There is no cure for celiac disease. There is also no medication that can fix the problem. But you can help your child feel better and eliminate symptoms. To treat celiac disease, remove all sources of gluten from your child’s diet. It’s important to do this even if your child is not feeling sick. Removing gluten will prevent symptoms and health problems caused by celiac disease. Once gluten is removed, any symptoms your child has will likely go away in about 3 to 4 weeks. Damaged villi in the intestine can return to normal in about 6 months.

A health care provider is discussing dietary needs with a woman holding a child.

What Foods Must Be Avoided?

The most common gluten-containing foods are those made with wheat flour. This includes bread (both “white” and “wheat”), pasta, cereal, cake, and pizza dough. Gluten is also often found in sauces, gravies, salad dressings, condiments, and most packaged foods. Learn to read food labels to look for gluten in everything your child eats. A dietitian (an expert in food and nutrition) can help you start learning about foods with gluten. In general, your child cannot eat foods made with:

  • Wheat

  • Rye

  • Barley

  • Spelt

  • Kamut

  • Bulgur

  • Malt

  • Semolina

  • Oats (Ask your child’s health care provider or dietitian if your child needs to avoid oats.)

What Can My Child Eat?

There are plenty of foods that are naturally gluten-free. You can also find gluten-free versions of bread, pasta, and other products normally made with wheat flour. Safe foods and ingredients include:

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Fresh meats (beef, poultry, lamb, pork)

  • Seafood

  • Many dairy products

  • Corn

  • Rice

  • Potatoes

  • Beans

  • Tofu

  • Amaranth

  • Buckwheat

  • Millet

  • Quinoa

Avoiding Accidental Exposure to Gluten

Giving your child a gluten-free diet can take some getting used to. Your child’s food can’t come into contact with gluten. So all of your child’s meals will have to be prepared with separate utensils. This includes knives, cutting boards, toasters, and storage containers. It also means being extra careful at restaurants, parties, and anywhere you aren’t preparing your child’s food yourself. Gluten can also be found in a variety of nonfood products. Accidental ingestion can occur with products such as shampoo, lotion, makeup, glue, and soap. Some medicines also contain gluten, so ask your child’s health care provider what medications your child can’t take. One way to help avoid accidental exposure is for the whole family to go gluten-free. This can save you time and energy, and reduce your child’s risk of exposure to gluten. 

How Does Celiac Disease Affect My Whole Family?

Getting used to your child’s gluten-free lifestyle can be a strain on the whole family. Your child may be upset about feeling different from friends or siblings. School events, parties, and holidays are times when your child might worry about not getting favorite foods. And your child’s siblings may resent strict controls over food in the house. If you face problems like these, a celiac disease support group can help (see box below). Support groups offer tips on making your child’s gluten-free lifestyle easier on the whole family. You may also wish to have all family members tested for celiac disease.

Kids Can Learn to Avoid Gluten on Their Own

You can’t watch over your child 24 hours a day. Even if you are very careful, slip-ups can happen. But your child can learn how to avoid gluten when away from home. Here are some ways that you can help:

  • Make sure your child knows that eating even a small amount of gluten can hurt the lining of the intestines. This can cause symptoms to return.

  • Explain that your child will need to learn how to say “no” to foods with gluten.

  • Provide safe foods for your child to bring to parties and school events. This can help keep your child from feeling left out.

  • Don’t worry if slips sometimes happen — kids will be kids! Your child will learn through practice.

Following Up with the Health Care Provider 

Your child should be seen by the health care provider at least once a year for a celiac checkup. A simple blood test can show if your child’s celiac disease is under control. The blood test will check for antibodies. These are proteins made by your child’s immune system in response to the presence of gluten. If antibody levels are high, accidental exposure to gluten may be the cause. In this case, the health care provider can discuss with you how to find the source of gluten and get rid of it.

To Learn More

For more information about managing your child’s celiac disease, contact:

  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov

  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: www.eatright.org

  • Celiac Disease Foundation: www.celiac.org

  • NASPGHAN: North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition: www.naspghan.org

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 3/10/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.