Sometimes medical terms are clear and easy to understand. Sometimes they are not. This has a lot to do with the history of certain diseases and how they got their names.
Sprue, a Dutch word, was initially used to describe the condition of malabsorption in the intestine that occurs along with the passage of fatty stool. Anything that causes trouble with absorbing food in the small intestine can lead to what appears to be fatty stool, which contains all the things that weren’t digested. Anyone who is not absorbing enough of their food will develop many symptoms. They will usually have diarrhea, as well as cramps and other intestinal symptoms. They almost always lose a significant amount of weight. They also develop vitamin deficiencies which other problems, such as anemia because they are not getting enough folic acid.
The term tropical sprue refers to this condition when it occurs in travelers to the tropics, where poor sanitation and heat cause bacterial contamination of food and water. It is thought to be the result of a bacterial infection which can be caught from contaminated food and/or water. The result is bacteria growth in the intestine inhibiting it from absorbing food and nutrients. Tropical sprue is treated with antibiotics.
Non-tropical sprue refers to this condition when it occurs to someone who is not in the tropics. The most common cause of non-tropical sprue is celiac disease.
Celiac disease is also called gluten intolerance, because it is caused by the intestines’ inability to digest and absorb gluten. Another way of saying this is that intestines cannot tolerate gluten; they are gluten intolerant. A less common term for this is gluten-induced enteropathy. Enteropathy is an inflammation or disease of the intestines. Gluten-induced enteropathy is the same as gluten intolerance.
Celiac disease, celiac sprue, and gluten intolerance all mean the same thing. Celiac sprue is the older term. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are usually used now.
So, what does the term celiac mean? It refers to the abdominal cavity in Greek. Wheat did not come into the human diet until cultivation of grains occurred. The first description of something that sounds like what we now call celiac disease was made in around 200 AD by Aretaeus of Cappadocia. He described a syndrome of malabsorption and diarrhea, calling it “Celiac Affection,” from the Greek word meaning abdominal, spelled koiliakos in Western script. This work was translated into English in 1856.
The first modern description of this disease was made by a pediatrician in London, who recognized the problem as a type of food intolerance but did not discover which foods caused the problem. He called it coeliac disease, the British spelling of celiac. Over the years much has been learned about celiac disease, so that it can now be called by a name that reflects the real problem, gluten intolerance. However, the term celiac disease continues to be used by some.
Gluten intolerance may be called non-tropical sprue, but that is a less specific term. For all intents and purposes, celiac disease means the same thing as gluten intolerance and the terms are usually used interchangeably.