Crohn's disease is a lifelong disease that causes swelling, inflammation, and deep sores in the lining of your digestive tract. It usually affects the small and large intestine. But it can attack any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus.
Crohn's may run in families. It can cause diarrhea, belly pain, and weight loss. Medicines can help control inflammation and keep the disease from causing symptoms.
What are the symptoms of Crohn's disease?
The main symptoms of Crohn's disease are belly pain and diarrhea (sometimes with blood). Losing weight without trying is another common sign.
Less common symptoms include mouth sores, bowel blockages, anal tears (fissures), and openings (fistulas) between organs.
Infections, hormonal changes, smoking, medicines, and lifestyle changes can cause your symptoms to flare up. Your symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe.
What causes Crohn's disease?
Doctors don't know what causes Crohn's disease. You may get it when the body's immune system has an abnormal response to normal bacteria in your intestine. Other kinds of bacteria and viruses may also play a role in causing the disease.
Crohn's disease can run in families. Your chances of getting it are higher if a close family member has it. People of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background may have a higher chance of getting Crohn's disease. Smoking also puts you at a higher risk for the disease.
How is Crohn's disease diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam. You may also have lab tests or imaging tests to find out if you have Crohn's disease.
Tests that may be done to diagnose or evaluate Crohn's disease include:
- Stool analysis. This test looks for blood and signs of infection in a sample of your stool.
- One or more imaging tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI.
- Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. In these tests, the doctor uses a thin, lighted tube to look inside the colon.
- A biopsy. The doctor takes a sample of tissue and tests it to find out if you have Crohn's disease or another disease, such as cancer.
- Barium X-rays of the small intestine or colon.
How is Crohn's disease treated?
Your treatment will depend on the type of symptoms you have and how bad they are. Medicines are the most common treatment for Crohn's disease. Mild symptoms may be treated with over-the-counter medicines to stop diarrhea. Prescription medicines can control or prevent inflammation in the intestines and help relieve symptoms. They also promote the healing of damaged tissues.
People who have more severe, long-lasting symptoms may need other treatments. These may include liquid feedings (supplemental nutrition) to let the intestines rest and heal or surgery to remove the damaged part of the intestine.
When to call
Crohn's disease: When to call
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- You passed out (lost consciousness).
- Your stools are maroon or very bloody.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You have new or worse belly pain.
- You have a fever.
- You have new or worse nausea or vomiting.
- You have new or more blood in your stools.
- You cannot pass stools or gas.
- You have pus draining from the area around the anus, or pain and swelling in the anal area.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You have new or worse symptoms, such as your diarrhea gets worse.
- You are losing weight.
- You do not get better as expected.
How can you care for yourself when you have Crohn's disease?
- Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
- Do not take anti-inflammatory medicines, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). They may make your symptoms worse. Do not take any other medicines or herbal products without talking to your doctor first.
- Avoid foods that make your symptoms worse. These might include milk, alcohol, high-fiber foods, or spicy foods. It may help to keep a diary of foods that make symptoms worse.
- Make sure to get enough iron. Rectal bleeding may make you lose iron. Good sources of iron include beef, lentils, spinach, raisins, and iron-enriched breads and cereals.
- Drink liquid meal replacements if your doctor recommends them. These are high in calories and contain vitamins and minerals. Severe symptoms may make it hard for your body to absorb vitamins and minerals.
- Talk to a dietitian to make sure you are getting the nutrition, including vitamins and minerals, that you need.
- Do not smoke. Smoking makes Crohn's disease worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
- Stay up to date on all immunizations.
- Follow your doctor's cancer screening recommendations.
- Seek support from friends and family to help cope with Crohn's disease. The illness can affect all parts of your life. Get counseling if you need it.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.