Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has had a devastating impact on the world throughout much of 2020. I first wrote this article in March when the pandemic – and panic – was first coming to light in the U.S. I’ve since updated the article several times with the latest information about the vaccine and how the disease impacts people with celiac disease. This post is not meant to replace medical advice from your doctor or CDC recommendations. It also contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
Coronavirus continues to affect all facets of human life around the globe, and many of my friends in the celiac disease community are wondering how it affects them in particular.
I want to take a moment to help you, my celiac disease friends, understand Coronavirus, and how it does – and doesn’t – affect you.
I’ve also added new information below about whether the Covid-19 vaccine is safe for people with celiac disease, and some of the challenges for our community associated with take-out food and gluten in hand sanitizer.
Are Celiac Disease Patients Part of the High Risk Population?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a virus that impacts the lungs and breathing that displays flu-like symptoms in those it impacts, although it is more contagious and causes more serious illness in some people.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is warning that the elderly and those with underlying health issues are not only at most risk for the illness, but also the ones most susceptible to its ill-effects.
However, the CDC also says that people who are “immunocompromised” are part of the most at-risk population.
Rest assured, if you have celiac disease, you are not immunocompromised.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, and having an autoimmune disease does not automatically make you immunocompromised.
UPDATE December 2020: According to the Society for the Study of Celiac Disease, studies thus far, have indicated no increased risk of severe outcomes for people with celiac disease. In fact, the SSCD says that risk [and outcomes] among people with celiac disease is comparable to that of the general population.
UPDATE December 2021: Researchers found there is no “significant increase in risk of hospitalization, severe COVID-19 or increase in mortality” between those patients with celiac disease and non-celiac patients afflicted with Covid-19.
Someone with celiac disease has a fully functioning immune system, not a compromised immune system. It’s just that their immune system mistakenly becomes confused and launches an attack on otherwise healthy tissue every time they eat gluten, which the body confuses as a foreign invader, like a virus.
When someone is immunocompromised, their immune system doesn’t respond to viruses and other foreign invaders when it should, and is therefore less able to respond to viruses, such as COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Therefore, people on chemotherapy, taking steroids, transplant patients who are taking immunosuppressive drugs, or people with conditions such as AIDS, have a reduced ability to fight viruses and infections.
Is the Covid-19 Vaccine Safe for People with Celiac Disease?
In December 2020, Pfizer, Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies began distributing their vaccines to front-line workers and high-risk populations, such as immunocompromised people and the elderly.
Please note that someone with celiac disease is not considered “high risk,” and therefore will be receiving the vaccine when it becomes available to high-risk people.
That said, a few questions have come to light about whether the vaccine is safe for people with celiac disease, and if it’s gluten free.
First, let’s talk about its safety. The Society for the Study of Celiac Disease says, “There is no evidence to suggest that people with celiac disease would be more prone to an adverse effect of vaccination. Celiac disease is not considered an allergy, and by itself does not prompt additional precaution when proceeding with vaccination.”
In other words, experts are urging those with with celiac disease to get vaccinated when it’s made available to them.
Some agencies are recommending that those with severe allergies to any of the ingredients in the vaccine to avoid getting vaccinated or to proceed cautiously under physician supervision.
The Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine is made from the following ingredients: mRNA, lipids ((4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis(2-hexyldecanoate), 2 [(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide, 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3- phosphocholine, and cholesterol), potassium chloride, monobasic potassium phosphate, sodium chloride, dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate, and sucrose
If you have celiac disease, you cannot be “allergic” to gluten. Gluten is not a recognized allergen. (Wheat is, however, a recognized allergen, gluten is simply the protein found inside wheat and other grains.) Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, not an allergy.
Is Hand Sanitizer Gluten Free?
Obviously everyone is enforcing good hand washing practices, as they should. (Please note experts have said Covid-19 is spread through the air, not through touching.) If you’ve been gluten free long enough, you know to wash hands often, don’t lick your fingers, and take all those good hygiene precautions most people with celiac disease already take to avoid touching and ingesting gluten.
It’s important to note, however, that some hand sanitizer brands may contain gluten. According to Safe Skin Products, Purell, the leading brand, does not contain any gluten. If you’re using a different brand, check the Safe Skin Products website to see what allergens it may or may not contain.
One hand sanitizer to avoid if you have celiac disease is Bath and Body Works. Many Bath and Body Works products, including the hand sanitizers and lotions, contain wheat germ. Read labels carefully before slathering anything on your hands or body. What might help prevent you from getting virus might be hurting you otherwise.
While you cannot absorb gluten via your skin, you can transfer it from your hands to the foods you eat. Even though you shouldn’t lick your fingers or bite your nails, so many of you (including me) do it. If there’s wheat germ on your hands, it’s absolutely possible it could make its way into your mouth.
One hand sanitizer brand I love is Everyone. It comes in wonderful scents (lavender, lemon and peppermint citrus), is moisturizing, and it’s certified gluten free!
How to Prepare for Coronavirus
It’s important to follow the current CDC’s recommendations – along with some good old-fashioned common sense – for staving off viruses. This means:
Wash Hands. Employ good hand washing (which most people with celiac disease do anyway). Wash for at least 20 seconds with warm to hot water and soap. (While washing hands is always good practice, Covid-19 is transmitted through the air, not touching.)
Be Responsible. Self quarantine if you feel sick or have any viral or flu-like symptoms. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Don’t touch your face, particularly your nose, mouth and eyes.
Avoid Contact. Do not shake hands or hug, even if the person does not show any symptoms.
Wear a Mask. Just do it. Covid-19 is highly contagious and is transmitted through breathing.
Employ Social Distancing. Avoid large crowds. Be careful when visiting elderly or anyone who is immunocompromised.
Be Sensible About Stocking Up. You’ll obviously want some non-perishable gluten-free foods on hand, and maybe some frozen vegetables, but don’t go crazy. This isn’t the end of the world, and grocery stores will still have food… and toilet paper. No need to hoard toilet paper.
Medications. Make sure you have a 60-day supply of any prescription medications or key supplements on hand should you need to self-quarantine for a period of time.
Eat Healthy. Again, eating right and taking care of yourself is in your control. Eat lots of fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables and soak in all the Vitamin C you can get … just in case.
Take Vitamin D. Researchers found that 80 percent of Covid patients were Vitamin D deficient. I’ve been taking Vitamin D supplements for years to help boost my immune system. Talk to your doctor about doing it too. You can also check for a Vitamin D deficiency at home with this test.
Fight Fear. Turn off the news. Go for a walk in the sunshine. This is not in your control, and you must stay calm and positive. Remember, Covid has been highly politicized; keep yourself immune from false information and fear mongering.
Be Careful with Hidden Gluten in Take Out
As much of America is staying at home, and restaurants remain closed due to bans on indoor dining, it’s important for the gluten-free community to recognize the challenges that come with remotely communicating your gluten-free needs when ordering online, via apps or over the phone.
To avoid getting glutened by take-out food, only solicit restaurants that have a clear track record for providing safe, gluten-free food for the celiac community.
Support your local gluten-free restaurants and bakeries the most (help keep them in business) and spend money with local and chain restaurants you know and trust. (Check out my list of safe places to eat in Denver.)
Always be sure to convey the seriousness of your gluten-free diet to the person taking your order or in the notes section of any app in which you place your take-out order. If there isn’t a place for you to type your special requests, follow up your order with a phone call.
How to Stay Productive During Coronavirus
While most trips, events, and schools are canceled, this is no time to panic. In fact, social distancing might be the chance you need to step-back from the daily grind and be productive at home.
During this period of forced social distancing, plan to:
- Spend time with your family playing games, watching movies, doing puzzles, and baking some new recipes. My gluten-free banana bread is the bomb!
- Take your dog for extra long walks and soak in lots of Vitamin D.
- Declutter your house. Donate what you no longer need.
- Spend time working on projects you’ve wanted to do but have been putting off. Did you know I published my book, Dear Gluten, It’s Not Me, It’s You, during the pandemic?!?
- Shop from home. Stores are offering delivery and curbside pick up, so take advantage of these no-contact ways to shop. For example, I’m keeping my wardrobe fresh with my ongoing Stitch Fix subscription. Stitch Fix sends me hand-picked selections right to my doorstep each month.
It’s worth reiterating that panicking is not productive. This forced social distancing is to deter the disease from spreading. These drastic measures are more preventative than reactionary.
Continue to do the things you can control. Stay away from crowds. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. And eat healthy to boost your immune system.