What is inflammatory bowel disease?

Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
18 May 2022
Next review due May 2025

You might have heard of inflammatory bowel disease, often shortened to IBD, but what is it? Here I answer some common questions about IBD including what the symptoms are and how it’s diagnosed.

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Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a disease that causes painful sores and inflammation in your gut. It’s caused when your body’s own immune system starts to attack your gut. It’s not known for sure why this happens. There is more than one type of IBD. The two main types are Crohn’s disease and colitis.

What are the symptoms of IBD?

Not everyone will have the same symptoms. But common symptoms of IBD include:

  • cramping pains in your tummy
  • diarrhoea (runny poo)
  • blood or mucus in your poo
  • feeling very tired
  • losing your appetite
  • losing weight
  • anaemia (not having enough iron in your blood)
  • problems with your joints, eyes, or skin

If you have colitis, you might also have constipation.

How is IBD diagnosed?

If you think you might have IBD speak to a doctor. They will ask you questions about your symptoms, and they might suggest you have some tests. These tests might include:

What’s the difference between Crohn’s disease and colitis?

Both Crohn’s disease and colitis cause inflammation in your digestives system. Crohn’s disease, often known simply as Crohn’s, can cause different parts of your gut to become inflamed but usually, it affects the small intestine. Colitis, sometimes known as ulcerative colitis, only causes your large bowel (also called your colon) to become inflamed. It can also cause ulcers to form in your colon.

Can IBD be cured?

No. IBD can’t be cured, but there are treatments to help you live with the condition. These treatments can include:

  • medicines to reduce inflammation in your gut
  • medicines to control your immune system
  • a liquid diet (if you have Crohn’s disease)
  • surgery to remove part of your gut

Some people don’t need any treatment. Speak to your doctor about what would be best for you.

Most people have weeks or months where they don’t experience symptoms, or their symptoms are not as severe. The periods of time where your symptoms come back and you feel unwell are called flare-ups. These can last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Some people go for years without flare-ups.

What diet is best for IBD?

There isn’t a specific diet to follow if you have IBD. The most important thing is to eat a healthy balanced diet and stay hydrated. Some people find that very spicy foods or food with a lot of fibre make their symptoms worse. Keep a food diary to help you track if certain foods trigger your symptoms. You should speak to a dietitian before cutting out any foods to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

Sometimes during a flare-up, you might need to follow special dietary advice. This might include avoiding certain foods or following a liquid diet. Your nurse or doctor will let you know when you need to follow this diet and a dietitian can support you on how exactly to do this. They might also recommend you take supplements.

What is the difference between IBD and IBS?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are very different conditions. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not a disease. Instead, it’s a group of symptoms. It doesn’t cause inflammation or damage to your gut and there isn’t a test that can tell you if you have it. IBS is much more common than IBD. In the UK, slightly less than 1 in every 100 people have Crohn’s or Colitis. But around 15 in every 100 people are thought to have IBS.

Even though they are different conditions, IBD and IBS do share some of the same symptoms. And you can have both conditions at the same time. If you’re having digestive symptoms speak to a doctor to make sure you get the treatment you need.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Niamh Hennessy
Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital

    • All about Crohn's and Colitis. Crohn’s and Colitis UK., reviewed October 2019
    • Ulcerative colitis. BMJ Best Practice., accessed 13 May 2022
    • Crohn's disease. BMJ Best Practice., reviewed 13 April 2022
    • Crohn's disease. Crohn’s and Colitis UK., reviewed April 2021
    • Treatments. Crohn’s and Colitis UK., accessed 13 May 2022
    • Irritable bowel syndrome. BMJ Best Practice., updated 12 April 2022

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