Coeliac disease is a chronic disease characterized by small bowel villous atrophy which impairs nutrient absorption and improves on withdrawal of wheat gliadins and barley, rye and oat prolamins from the diet. Knowledge of the adult form of coeliac disease has greatly improved in recent years. Although this knowledge is not yet sufficiently widespread among referring clinicians, it has, over the past few years, allowed an increasing number of patients to be diagnosed with subclinical forms characterized by minor, transient or apparently unrelated symptoms. As a consequence, our views on the clinical and epidemiological aspects of this condition, the prevalance of which in the general population is believed to be close to 1 in 300, have changed and are still changing. Since it has been demonstrated that a strict gluten-free diet is protective against the complications of adult coeliac disease, it is important that even subclinical and silent forms are diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Non-invasive screening tests, such as anti-gliadin and anti-endomysium antibody estimation, should therefore be used systematically in groups considered to be at risk of coeliac disease. These include first-degree relatives of coeliac patients and patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, iron-deficiency anaemia, epilepsy with cerebral calcification, recurrent aphthous stomatitis and dental enamel hypoplasia. Other conditions will probably be identified in the near future.
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