Gluten intolerance, also called celiac disease, is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and causes the malabsorption of vitamins and other nutrients. Celiacs have a chronic reaction to glutens found in cereals such as wheat, barley and rye, and oats when contaminated with these other grains. Celiac disease has a wide range of symptoms which may also occur in other diseases, making it difficult to diagnose. One such symptom is edema, also known as dropsy or fluid retention.
Causes of Gluten Intolerance
Gluten intolerance is one of the most common genetic diseases, affecting one in 266 people worldwide and one in 133 in the U.S., according to the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. You may become gluten intolerant at any age. Triggers include genetic disposition, environmental factors such as exposure to wheat, situational factors such as stress, physical factors such as pregnancy, or pathological factors such as viral infection.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance
Symptoms of gluten intolerance vary from extreme to very mild or even non-existent. They include digestive disorders, chronic fatigue, loss of bone density, skin irritations and neurological problems. Children may be pale, irritable and fail to thrive. Edema is a classic symptom of gluten intolerance. It is characterized by the accumulation of abnormally large amounts of fluid between the cells of the body or in the circulatory system, leading to swelling and taut, shiny skin. Pressure on the swollen area may leave an indentation.
Edema and Gluten Intolerance
Other symptoms of edema which may occur include shortness of breath, abdominal bloating, muscle aches and sudden weight gain due to fluid retention. Edema most commonly affects the feet, ankles, legs, face and hands. It is caused by gluten intolerance due to the malabsorption of protein. If gluten intolerance goes undiagnosed and malnutrition occurs, blood protein levels decrease. Normal blood protein levels prevent fluid leakage from blood vessels. Low levels of blood protein cause fluid to move from blood vessels into tissue spaces between cells, leading to edema.
Treatment for Edema
If you suffer from edema, your doctor may prescribe a diuretic or "water pill" to reduce fluid retention. Other ways of relieving edema are to keep the legs elevated above your heart, wear support stockings, take care not to stand or sit for long periods and reduce your salt intake. In addition, protect swollen areas from pressure, injury or extremes of temperature. Broken skin in affected areas may be slow to heal and prone to infection.
There is no cure for celiac disease. If symptoms go undetected they can lead to serious complications including anemia, osteoporosis, miscarriage, liver disease and cancers of the intestine. Avoid symptoms by following a gluten-free diet. The reduction or disappearance of symptoms is not an indication that you are no longer gluten intolerant. Until tests have proved conclusive, continue to adhere to a gluten-free diet, or permanent damage may occur.
Is This an Emergency?
- Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University; Frequently Asked Questions
- National Institutes of Health; National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC); September 2008
- University of Maryland Medical Center; Edema; March 2010
- Cleveland Clinic; Diseases and Conditions; Edema; November 2007
- The Free Dictionary: Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine; Edema; 2008
- University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research; Celiac Disease Facts; July 2010