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). Some people may have diarrhea 10 to 20 times a day. 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. You may have only mild symptoms or go for long periods of time without any symptoms. A few people have ongoing, severe symptoms.
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 X-rays and lab tests to find out if you have Crohn's disease.
Tests that may be done to diagnose or evaluate Crohn's disease include:
- 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.
- Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. In these tests, the doctor uses a thin, lighted tube to look inside the colon.
- 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 MRI.
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. 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 can include stronger or different medicines, surgery to remove part of the intestine, or a procedure called balloon dilation.
When to call
Crohn’s disease: When to call
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- Your stools are maroon or very bloody.
- You passed out (lost consciousness).
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You are vomiting.
- You have new or worse belly pain.
- You have a fever.
- You cannot pass stools or gas.
- You have new or more blood in your stools.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You have new or worse symptoms.
- 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.
- Eat a healthy diet. 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.
- 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.
- 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.