Is Celiac Disease Linked to Repeated Infections?

Some studies have indicated early infections may raise your risk

sick baby sleeping
 Science Photo Library

Children who contract repeated infections—gastrointestinal infections but also respiratory infections—early in life have an increased risk of developing celiac disease, several studies show.

However, there's no evidence that infections actually cause celiac disease, and the overall risk of eventually being diagnosed with the condition remains quite low, even among those children and adults who did have multiple infections at a very young age.

So, even if your child has contracted many infections, you probably don't need to worry much about celiac disease, but here's what you do have to know.

What Contributes to Celiac Disease?

Doctors don't yet know what causes celiac disease. Your genes—and whether you carry the so-called "celiac disease genes"—are the most important factor in whether you'll ultimately develop the condition.

However, many people (some 40 percent in the overall United States population) have those genes, and celiac disease affects less than 1 percent of the population overall. Since the vast majority of people who have the "right" genes never develop celiac disease, researchers know there must be other factors in play.

There likely are other genes involved that we haven't discovered yet. Also, clinicians have examined whether some sort of a "trigger" is involved and have looked at pregnancy and stress as potential candidates.

Several studies have also looked at infections caused by viruses or bacteria to determine if those are linked in any way to the development of celiac disease.

Research on GI Infections and Celiac Disease

It's possible that having a gastrointestinal infection—what you might think of as the "stomach flu"—in the first year of life could affect your risk of celiac disease.

A study involving nearly 300,000 infants born in Germany between 2005 and 2007 looked at those children's history of gastrointestinal infections and then determined how many of those children had been diagnosed with celiac disease.

The study found that celiac disease risk was one-third higher among children who had a gastrointestinal infection in their first year and that repeated gastrointestinal infections were associated with "particularly increased risk of celiac disease in later life." Children who had a respiratory infection as infants also had a slightly increased risk of developing celiac disease.

Additional Studies

The study from Germany isn't the only one to find a link between early-in-life viral and/or bacterial infections and an increased risk of celiac disease. Additional smaller studies have also found some connection, although they all looked at slightly different ages of children.

In Norway, researchers looked at more than 72,000 children born between 2000 and 2009 and found that those with 10 or more infections in their first 18 months had a significantly higher risk of later developing celiac disease when compared to children who didn't have that many infections.

That study found that children with lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis were the most likely to develop celiac disease, followed by those with gastroenteritis (what you may think of as the "stomach flu") and upper respiratory tract infections (like influenza).

And another study, this one from Sweden, looked at 954 children and found that having three or more "infectious episodes" reported by parents during the first six months of life was associated with a significantly increased risk for later celiac disease, regardless of the type of infection involved.

In addition, infants who had repeated infections and who consumed a large amount of gluten had an even higher risk.

A Word From Verywell

While the available research indicates that contracting infections—especially repeated infections—very early in life may raise a child's risk of celiac disease, the overall risk is still quite low.

Still, there's unfortunately little information on what parents can do to protect their children, especially if celiac disease runs in the family. Although doctors once thought that breastfeeding could help safeguard babies, more recent research has shown that there's, unfortunately, no protective effect.

If you're concerned about infections and celiac disease, there is one thing you can do: make sure your child gets all recommended vaccinations, including the flu shot. Although they aren't conclusive, these studies provide some evidence that avoiding infections might reduce your child's risk of celiac disease. And if you're concerned, talk to your pediatrician about any possible symptoms your child may have.

Sources:

Beyerlein A et al. Infections in Early Life and Development of Celiac DiseaseAmerican Journal of Epidemiology. 2017 Dec 1;186(11):1277-1280.

Marild K et al. Infections and Risk of Celiac Disease in Childhood: A Prospective Nationwide Cohort StudyAmerican Journal of Gastroenterology. 2015 Oct;110(10):1475-84.

Myleus A et al. Early Infections Are Associated with Increased Risk for Celiac Disease: An Incident Case-Referent Study. BMC Pediatrics. 2012; 12: 194.