Infections occurring during early life could increase the risk of developing celiac disease, according to a study done by researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

The study was based on the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, which involved 72,921 children born between 2000 and 2009. The researchers followed the growth of the children for 18 months and took note of occurrences of respiratory infections and gastroenteritis.

Through information gathered from the Norwegian Patient Register and parental questionnaires, the researchers found that 581 of the children, or 0.8 percent, developed celiac disease.  

The researchers discovered that children who frequently have infections in their first 18 months are most likely to develop celiac disease compared to those who don't. Children who had at least 10 infections in early life increased their risk for developing the disease by 30 percent.

"We think there are many pieces to the puzzle that must fit together for someone to develop celiac disease, where heredity, gluten intake and possibly many other environmental factors are important," lead author Karl Mårild said in a press release. "Perhaps having frequent infections in early life influences the immune system so that it is subsequently more likely to react to gluten."

The authors emphasized that their findings only applied to children. Whether the same association between infection and celiac disease exists in adults is not yet known.

Celiac disease is a condition in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, making it interfere with nutrient absorption. About 1 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease. An estimated 83 percent of Americans with celiac disease are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

The study was published in the Sept. 8 issue of The American Journal of Gastroenterology.