How is celiac disease treated?

Dr. Donald J. Brust, MD

Celiac disease is important to treat for reasons that extend beyond the resolution of symptoms. If left untreated, celiac disease can progress to become chronic ulcers of the small intestine (ulcerative jejunoileitis) or even lymphoma. Treatment is relatively straightforward and involves avoidance of gluten-containing foods (gluten-free diet). Complete avoidance must be adhered to; exposure to even small amounts of gluten can aggravate symptoms. Checking periodic blood tests for the continued presence of antibodies allows doctors to assess the effectiveness of the patient’s diet. More than 70% of patients will begin to feel better within two weeks of starting a gluten-free diet.

There is no cure for celiac disease, but it is treated effectively by eliminating gluten from the diet for life. With strict adherence to a gluten-free diet, it is possible to stop and even reverse damage to the intestine.

There are many foods containing flour of particular grains and vegetables that are allowable to eat, including potatoes, corn, buckwheat, rice, bean and soy. Newly-diagnosed patients should consult a nutritionist knowledgeable about celiac disease to help them plan a proper diet.

Currently the only known treatment for Celiac disease is a gluten-free diet for life. A gluten-free diet means avoiding all gluten containing grains (i.e., Wheat, Rye, and Barley) and anything derived from these items. Be aware depending on what country you live or travel in, there are different standards for measuring gluten in ready-made products. That means in Europe it may say gluten-free but may have a minute amount of gluten; whereas in the United States and Canada there is zero tolerance for gluten in gluten-free products. You must be careful and assess just how ‘sensitive’ you are to gluten and other items in those foods.

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Dr. Donald Petroski, MD

Only one treatment helps celiac disease: a gluten-free diet. Avoiding gluten will stop symptoms within days and heal the intestine within six months.

Following a gluten-free diet means not eating most grains, pasta, cereal and many processed foods. But the good news is, more and more gluten-free products are available at grocery stores these days. Plus, fresh meat, poultry, fish, eggs, rice, fruit and veggies can be eaten because they don't contain gluten.

Going gluten-free can be tricky at first. Here are tips to help your family:

  • Work with a dietitian to learn which foods to avoid, how to eat a balanced diet and how to read ingredient lists.
  • Check the ingredient lists on medicine, vitamins and lip balm because they may contain wheat. If ingredients are not listed, ask a pharmacist to help you.
  • Avoid additives—such as modified food starch, preservatives and stabilizers—that are made from wheat. Ask your child's doctor or dietitian for a list of ingredients to watch out for.
  • When in doubt while eating out, ask about ingredients and preparation.
  • Instead of wheat flour, try flour made from gluten-free sources, such as potato, rice, soy or bean.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.