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Celiac disease affects over two million people in the United States, or about 1 in every 33 people. It is a digestive disorder in which the small intestine is damaged due to a reaction from eating a protein called gluten. The damage prevents the small intestine from absorbing the nutrients from food that are important to one's health.
People with this disease cannot tolerate gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. In addition, some medicines, vitamins, and lip balms also contain gluten. If a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system will attack villi, tiny, fingerlike protrusions that line the small intestine and allow it to absorb nutrients from food into the blood stream. When the villi are damaged or destroyed, a person will become malnourished.
People with family members who have celiac disease have a higher risk of developing the disease themselves. Celiac disease can develop at any point in life, even during infancy. Sometimes the disease will become active for the first time after pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, surgery, or severe emotional stress.
Other names for celiac disease include celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy.