Keratosis pilaris, a skin condition colloquially called "chicken skin," usually doesn't raise major health concerns, but it can represent an annoyance it. However, there is evidence -- still unproven -- that some people who develop keratosis pilaris also have a more serious condition called celiac disease. If that's the case, your skin should clear up once you adopt the gluten-free diet used to treat celiac disease.
When you have the skin condition keratosis pilaris, it manifests in small, pointy pimples that can cover affected areas of your body. Common sites to see keratosis pilaris pimples include the backs of your arms, the legs and the buttocks, although the pimples also can appear on your cheeks and neck. It's not clear what causes the condition, although heredity may play a factor, since it runs in families. It often gets worse in the winter and seems to clear up in the summer.
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Celiac disease involves a genetic intolerance to gluten, a form of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It also runs in families, and the only known treatment is to follow a diet free of gluten. Although no researcher has investigated whether people with keratosis pilaris are more likely to have celiac disease, there are some links between the two conditions. Keratosis pilaris occurs frequently in people with insulin-dependent diabetes, a condition that shares strong genetic ties to celiac disease. In addition, eliminating allergens from your diet -- especially gluten -- can lead to improvements in keratosis pilaris.
It's also possible that you may not have keratosis pilaris at all; instead, you may have another skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis, which occurs in concert with celiac disease when you consume gluten. Dermatitis herpetiformis looks something like keratosis pilaris -- clusters of small, pointed pimples -- and occurs in some of the same places on your body, including the buttocks and arms. To determine whether you have dermatitis herpetiformis and not keratosis pilaris, you'll need to undergo a skin biopsy.
If your doctor determines that you have celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis, you'll need to switch to a gluten-free diet permanently. That's because you run the risk of developing serious nutritional deficiencies, plus serious conditions such as osteoporosis and even cancer, if you continue to eat gluten-based foods. If you don't have celiac disease, it's less clear whether you should attempt to use a gluten-free diet to control your keratosis pilaris; in that case, talk to your doctor about trying an elimination diet that may show if your gluten ingestion contributes to your skin condition.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.