Gluten Allergy Widespread

The Early Show: medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay and Hannah Storm
CBS/The Early Show
It's called celiac disease, or celiac sprue, an immune disorder in which the body reacts to foods containing grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye.

Specifically, the body is reacting to a protein called gluten, which is in the grains, and such a reaction is more common than previously thought, according to a new study.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports its underlying cause is a genetic susceptibility that often runs in families. It can be very mild or very severe, depending on the individual. It can sometimes be life-threatening, if left untreated.

Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, gas and abdominal pain. But the body's inability to absorb proper nutrients can cause other symptoms, too, like fatigue, weight loss, anemia and osteoporosis.

These symptoms can often be mistaken for other ailments, and that's dangerous because the disease can raise the risk of gastrointestinal cancer if left untreated. The immune reaction damages structures called villi in the small intestine, which are vital for nutrient absorption.

Although it's common in Europe, the perception has always been that celiac disease is a rare disorder in the United States. But a new study suggests that it's much more common than we thought. Researchers looked at more than 13,000 adults and children.

They found that more than 1.5 million Americans may be affected. The disease was present in one out of 22 people who had a close relative with celiac disease and in one out of a 133 people who were not at risk.

Those suspected of suffering from celiac disease are given a blood tes,t which screens for antibodies found in the majority of people with the disease. A biopsy of the intestine is used to confirm the diagnosis. Unfortunately, there is no cure.

Celiac disease can really only be treated by adhering to a strict diet that avoids foods containing gluten, like breakfast cereal, bread, crackers and pasta. It can also show up in other foods such as canned soup, lunch meat, salad dressings, seasoning mixes, and as additives in a wide range of processed foods.

A nutritionist can help you choose the right foods to avoid gluten.