Brenda Smith, who has been diagnosed with coeliac disease, holding gluten-free bread which costs about $8 for a small loaf.
Brenda Smith, who has been diagnosed with coeliac disease, holding gluten-free bread which costs about $8 for a small loaf. Alistair Brightman

Chronic coeliac disease: a life of choice and consequences

FOR many of us, deciding where to eat out can be a matter of taste.

But for others such as Hervey Bay's Brenda Smith, making the wrong culinary choice can have serious consequences.

It has been two years since Brenda was diagnosed with chronic coeliac disease.

"It's very hard when you want to go out for a meal because you can't even buy a carton of chips," Brenda said.

"If you go to a restaurant and ask 'what do you have that is gluten free?' your option is often salad or roast without gravy.

"That's your choice and you might as well have that at home."

Coeliac disease is caused by gluten intolerance and can result in a lack of energy, stomach pain or upset, bloating or weight loss as well as higher risks of developing infertility, osteoporosis, infection and some forms of cancer.

Nearly 80% of people with coeliac disease are unaware they have the illness, putting them at-risk of both short and long term health.

Brenda admits that her doctors initially struggled to identify the signs.

"I went three times to my doctor before they actually found out what it was," she said. "I had very bad pains in the chest. I thought it was my heart."

At first Brenda's symptoms were dismissed as a simple case of indigestion before doctors finally realised the issue was far more serious.

"I was also losing weight. I was losing at least a kilo a week. It was just falling off me," she said. "I went back to the doctor again and finally after a series of tests I was diagnosed as having coeliac disease.

"It was nearly three months just trying to find out what was wrong."

Figured released this week by Coeliac Australia show more than a quarter of a million people live with undiagnosed coeliac disease.

This week marks the end of Coeliac Awareness Week, which runs from March 13-20.

A national survey of 2560 members of Coeliac Australia found:

  • 56% had symptoms for at least three years before they were diagnosed as coeliac
  • 75% said their symptoms significantly disrupted their normal routine
  • 31% had to take sick leave because of their symptoms
  • 29% have a first degree relative who is also diagnosed with coeliac disease
  • 80% are happier now that they have been diagnosed