Toddlers who catch a common stomach flu could be more likely to become gluten intolerant later in life, warns a new study.
Researchers found the enterovirus, a common intestinal infection, could trigger coeliac disease in children who are at higher risk of developing the condition.
The common digestive condition is caused by an adverse reaction to gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, and is believed to develop from a group of genetics and environmental triggers.
While adenovirus infections are not linked with coeliac disease, the enterovirus was found to be a direct trigger according to the study published in The BMJ.
Study lead author Dr Ketil Stordal, from the Norway and Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said: “Previous studies suggest that stomach and intestinal infections, which are common in childhood, play a role in the development of coeliac disease – but no firm conclusions have been made.
“This preliminary finding adds new information on the role of viral infections as a potential underlying cause of coeliac disease.”
The research team tested whether enterovirus and adenovirus infections were more common in 220 Norwegian children who were later diagnosed with coeliac disease, compared to those who were not.
The Norwegian children were studied over a six year period and all carried genes linked to an increased risk of both coeliac disease and type 1 diabetes.
After an average of almost 10 years, 25 children were diagnosed with coeliac disease and each child was then matched to two healthy controls.
Enterovirus was found in 370 (17 per cent) of 2,135 stool samples, with 73 children having at least one positive sample.
And it was “significantly more frequent” in samples collected before development of coeliac disease antibodies in cases than in controls – 84 out of 429 (20 per cent) in cases and 129 out of 855 (15 per cent) in controls.
Dr Stordal said: “There was a significant association between exposure to enterovirus and later risk of developing coeliac disease, but adenovirus was not linked to the development of the disease.
“Enterovirus infections caught after gluten was introduced to the child’s diet were associated with coeliac disease, whereas those before or at the time of introduction were not, suggesting that the infection itself was the disease trigger.”
The researchers said that the preliminary finding add new information on the role of viral infections as a potential underlying cause of coeliac disease.
With almost 40 per cent of the population being genetically prone to coeliac disease, the researchers highlight the “major problem” of identifying environmental triggers.
They suggest that identifying specific viruses as triggers may justify preventative strategies.
Dr Stordal added: “If enterovirus is confirmed as a trigger factor, vaccination could reduce the risk of development of coeliac disease.”