Crohn's disease is a bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in your digestive system. It can affect any part of your digestive tract from your mouth to your anus.
Around 115,000 people in the UK have Crohn's disease.
Crohn's disease affects the wall of your bowel. It can affect any area from your mouth down through your stomach and bowel to your anus. However, it most commonly causes inflammation in the final part of your small bowel or the first part of your large bowel (colon). Crohn’s disease can affect more than one area of your bowel and leave areas in between completely unaffected.
Crohn's disease is a chronic illness. This means that it can last for a long time, sometimes for the rest of your life. The term chronic refers to how long you have the illness, not to how serious it is. However, it's usually a ‘relapsing and remitting’ condition. This means that your symptoms can disappear and then flare up again from time to time.
Crohn’s disease usually develops in teenagers and young adults, but you can get it at any age. It’s more common in women than men.
Symptoms of Crohn's disease range from mild to severe. They can also settle down in one part of your bowel and then flare up in another. There may be long periods of time when you have few or no symptoms at all.
Symptoms of Crohn's disease include:
Crohn’s disease can also cause other problems, such as:
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
If you have severe inflammation of your bowel, you may develop complications.
Complications of Crohn’s disease include the following.
The exact reasons why you may develop Crohn's disease aren't fully understood at present. However, your family history may play a role and increase your risk of getting it. Up to four in 10 people who have Crohn’s disease have a close relative who also has the condition. It’s thought that an abnormal immune reaction to certain bacteria or viruses in your bowel may cause the condition if you’re at increased risk.
You may also be more likely to develop Crohn’s disease if you:
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP may ask for a sample of your faeces to check for a bacterial infection. He or she will take a blood test to look for anaemia and signs of inflammation.
Your GP may refer you to a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the digestive system) for more tests. These may include the following.
There isn't a cure for Crohn's disease but there are treatments to help ease your symptoms and prevent complications. The treatment you have will depend on how severe your condition is. If your condition is mild, you may not need any treatment.
It's important to eat a healthy, balanced diet if you have Crohn’s disease. You may find that certain foods, such as those high in fibre, can make your symptoms worse. If this happens, it might help to remove these foods from your diet while you have symptoms. However, get some advice from a dietitian first. For more information, see our frequently asked questions.
During a flare-up, a liquid diet made up of simple forms of protein, carbohydrates and fats may help to ease your symptoms. These diets are called elemental or polymeric diets. You will need to follow them for three to six weeks. Because they are easier to digest they help rest your bowel, improve your nourishment and ease inflammation.
Medicines can help to prevent a flare-up or ease your symptoms of Crohn’s disease. You may need to go into hospital for treatment if you have severe symptoms during a flare-up.
The main treatments are listed below. You may need to have just one, or a combination of these.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol. Don't take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin. These can cause a flare-up of Crohn's disease. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or your doctor for advice.
Medicines will usually control your symptoms. However, if you have tried a number of different medicines and they haven't worked, your doctor may suggest surgery. You might also need surgery if you have complications of Crohn's disease, such as an abscess or fistula.
You may have an operation to remove a severely inflamed part of your bowel. Or you might have surgery to widen areas where your bowel has narrowed because of a stricture, or to drain an abscess. Even if all of the affected part of your bowel is removed, the condition can return in areas of your bowel that were previously healthy. Therefore, surgery isn’t a cure for Crohn’s disease.
Eight out of 10 people with Crohn's disease may need to have an operation at some point in their life. Some people may need several operations to treat Crohn’s disease.
When your condition is in remission and you have few or no symptoms, you may find Crohn's disease has little impact on your day-to-day life. However, when you get a flare-up, your symptoms can make life more difficult. Frequent bouts of diarrhoea can make it harder to work. About one in 10 people who have had Crohn’s disease for longer than five years are unable to work.
You may find it helpful to see a counsellor or join a support group to meet others in a similar situation.
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2014.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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