Autoimmune diseases and COVID-19: Implications for celiac sufferers

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[3 MIN READ] 

In this article: 

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack parts of the gut. 
  • People with celiac disease are not at higher risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, however it is still important to manage the condition to keep your body healthy during the pandemic. 
  • COVID-19 vaccines are safe for individuals with celiac disease. 

Celiac disease affects as many as 1 in 100 people around the world. There are many others – as many as 2 million in the U.S. – that aren’t even aware they have the condition. That’s too many people who may be suffering in silence or aren’t sure what’s causing their symptoms. This month, National Celiac Awareness Day focuses on raising awareness about the condition, which is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic so those affected can keep their health on track. 

Celiac disease can be a very serious and debilitating disease. Fortunately, there are many things we can do to manage symptoms and avoid flares. The first step is getting a clear understanding of the disease and what it means to you.  

What is celiac disease? 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s reaction to gluten (a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye) causes damage to the small intestine. Celiac disease may be more common in people who have a genetic predisposition, or family history, of the condition.  

When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their body responds as if it needs to fight off a foreign body, similar to what it does when a virus enters the bodyThis reaction causes the immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine. These small, fingerlike strands help absorb nutrients into the body. When they become damaged, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. This can lead to serious side effects including weight loss, malnutrition, diarrhea, stomach cramping and nausea. 

Celiac disease and COVID-19 

Because celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, many people with the condition are concerned about their risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19. After all, people with some autoimmune disorders may be at higher risk of developing severe symptoms.  

Fortunately, there have been no reports or studies that suggest individuals with celiac disease are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or developing serious symptoms.  

SECURE-Celiac (Surveillance Epidemiology of Coronavirus Under Research Exclusion) has been tracking all international cases of COVID-19 in children and adults with COVID-19. They have found no connection between COVID-19 and celiac disease or an increase in severity of symptoms.  

This good news is most likely because people with celiac disease do not have a compromised immune system like those who are immunocompromised (such as those with Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis or taking immunosuppressant drugs). Having celiac disease does not make it more difficult for you to fight off bacteria and viruses (including COVID-19).  

Celiac disease and the COVID-19 vaccine 

If you have celiac disease, you can rest assured that any of the available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for you to take. You are not at higher risk for any of the very rare side effects that might accompany the vaccines, and they are just as effective in those with celiac disease as those without the condition. None of the available vaccines in the U.S. contain gluten or wheat either.   

Managing your celiac disease during the COVID-19 pandemic 

Your good health matters more than ever during this COVID-19 pandemic. As communities and healthcare workers continue to fight COVID-19 and its variants, you can do your part by taking care of yourself. That includes reducing your risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 and sticking to your plan to manage your disease.  

Here’s how you can stay healthy and reduce your risk of getting COVID-19: 

  • Wear a mask. Even vaccinated individuals should wear a mask when indoors. A mask can help cut down on transmitting the virus to others when asymptomatic – something very important, especially for those not yet able to be vaccinate. 
  • Avoid triggersNow is not the time to stress eat or indulge in your favorite snacks if they contain gluten. Instead, stay strong by not bringing those snacks into the house or having a friend or family member you can call when you’re tempted to “cheat.” 
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity is great for your digestive health and your overall health – including your immune system. Make time to take a walk around the neighborhood or do a home workout that gets your heart rate pumping. 
  • Take medication as prescribedIf you need medicine to repair damage to your small intestine, manage symptoms or address side effects of your condition (like eczema), continue taking them as prescribed by your doctor.  

It’s so important to take care of yourself throughout the pandemic, which can get hard as we continue to weather the ups and down of new strains.  

What to do if you get sick with COVID-19 

If you do have celiac disease and happen to become sick with COVID-19, try not to stress.  

Take care of yourself and keep in touch with your healthcare provider. Focus your energy and attention on recovering and stopping the spread of the virus. 

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Find a doctor 

The providers at Providence can help you identify if you’re at risk of celiac disease and, if needed, order the tests that can diagnose the condition. They can create a plan that helps you stay healthy and wellIf you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. 

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions. 

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