If I Have Dermatitis Herpetiformis, Do I Also Have Celiac Disease?

Learn the close links between the two conditions

Is this your rash? You could have celiac disease. © Adam Health Illustrated Encyclopedia

If you've been officially diagnosed with dermatitis herpetiformis, you almost certainly do have celiac disease as well. However, the whole issue can be confusing, and some explanation is in order. 

What Exactly Is This 'Gluten Rash'?

The "gluten rash" dermatitis herpetiformis (yes, it's a mouthful) is an incredibly itchy, painful rash that results from your body's reaction to the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Although you can experience the rash anywhere on your body, it most commonly crops up on places like your elbows, knees, buttocks, lower back and the back of your neck. It's remarkably uncomfortable to have, to put it mildly.

When you consume gluten, your rash, which will include red bumps and blisters filled with a watery substance, likely will appear in the same place every time. The only way to force it into abeyance is to cut gluten from your diet completely.

How Does Dermatitis Herpetiformis Relate to Celiac Disease?

Some physicians consider them two aspects of the same condition, with the dermatitis herpetiformis rash classed as a symptom of celiac disease. Other physicians, meanwhile, consider celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis to be closely related, but not exactly the same condition.

In recent years, however, consensus has been forming around the "two aspects of the same condition" viewpoint.

The vast majority of physicians will look at it this way: If you have a diagnosis for dermatitis herpetiformis and your celiac antibody blood tests also came back positive, you have celiac disease. If, however, your blood tests for celiac disease came back negative, your dermatologist may refer you to a gastroenterologist for an intestinal biopsy, considered the gold standard for celiac disease diagnosis.

In practice, about 90% of dermatitis herpetiformis patients have a positive intestinal biopsy. Starting the gluten-free diet (followed super-strictly) should halt both your celiac disease symptoms and your dermatitis herpetiformis symptoms in their tracks.

    Celiac Disease, Dermatitis Herpetiformis Both Autoimmune

    Both celiac disease and the dermatitis herpetiformis rash are considered autoimmune diseases, where your body's immune system mistakenly attacks your own cells instead of foreign invaders.

    In celiac disease, your body's immune system erroneously attacks the villi in your small intestines, causing damage that leads to difficulties absorbing needed nutrients.

    Meanwhile, in dermatitis herpetiformis, the immune system attacks your skin instead of (or more realistically, in addition to) your intestinal villi. Dermatitis herpetiformis causes long-lasting purplish marks, and scarring is possible, especially if you can't resist the urge to scratch your rash (and you most likely can't, because it's the itchiest rash imaginable).

    Dermatitis herpetiformis affects between 15 and 25 percent of people with celiac disease, mainly adults, and many of people these have no gastrointestinal symptoms. Although the medication dapsone can help to clear up your rash, you'll need to stay on the gluten free diet long-term to prevent celiac disease complications.


    Dermatitis Herpetiformis: Skin Manifestation of Celiac Disease. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 

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