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    Frequently Asked Questions About Inflammatory Bowel Disease

    • What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?
    • Answer:

      Inflammatory bowel disease is a group of diseases -- ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease being the most common. These chronic illnesses can inflame the gastrointestinal tract, causing bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis can affect the entire large intestine or the rectum. Crohn's disease mainly affects short segments of both the small and large intestine but can involve the entire gastrointestinal tract.


    • What is Crohn’s disease?
    • Answer:

      Crohn's disease is an ongoing disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, also referred to as the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract. Crohn's disease can affect any area of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus, but it most commonly affects the lower part of the small intestine, called the ileum. The swelling extends deep into the lining of the affected organ. The swelling can cause pain and can make the intestines empty frequently, resulting in diarrhea.

    • Who gets Crohn’s disease?
    • Answer:

      Crohn's disease affects men and women equally and seems to run in some families. About 20% of people with Crohn's disease have a blood relative with some form of inflammatory bowel disease, most often a brother or sister and sometimes a parent or child. Crohn's disease can occur in people of all age groups, but it is more often diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 40. People of Jewish heritage have an increased risk of developing Crohn's disease, and blacks are at decreased risk for developing Crohn's disease.

    • What causes inflammatory bowel disease?
    • Answer:

      The cause(s) of inflammatory bowel disease is not known. However people believe that it may be genetically linked since IBD is known to run in families.

      An environmental cause is also believed to play a role in developing Crohn's disease because it most often occurs in people who smoke, are residents of Northern European countries, and live in urban areas.

      Other researchers speculate that the disease may be caused by an infection or virus.

      Still others believe that the body's immune system is reacting to unidentified or unknown substance. This substance would cause the immune system to respond inappropriately against normal intestinal tissue, resulting in chronic inflammation.

    • What diseases/infections or vaccines are thought to be linked to the development of IBD?
    • Answer:

      Measles, mumps, or rubella virus infection is not known to cause IBD. The virus that causes measles infects the respiratory system and then spreads to lymphatic tissue (an important part of the immune system). During the acute infection, lymph cells in the gastrointestinal tract are infected, but whether this can cause chronic inflammation is doubtful.

      One theory speculates that measles virus may persist in the intestine in certain individuals and later trigger a chronic inflammatory infection; however, this has not been proven. Because the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine contains a very weak live measles virus it has been suggested that the vaccine could cause an inflammatory process in the intestine. This theory has not been proven and is speculative.

    • What are the symptoms of Crohn's disease?
    • Answer:

      The most common symptoms of Crohn's disease are abdominal pain, often in the lower right area, and diarrhea. Rectal bleeding, weight loss, arthritis, skin problems, and fever may also occur. Bleeding may be serious and persistent, leading to anemia. Children with Crohn's disease may suffer delayed development and stunted growth. The range and severity of symptoms varies.

    • How are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis diagnosed?
    • Answer:

      A thorough physical exam and a series of tests may be required to diagnose Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.

      The doctor may do an upper GI series to look at the small intestine. For this test, the person drinks barium, a chalky solution that coats the lining of the small intestine, before X-rays are taken.

      The doctor may also do a visual exam of the colon by performing a colonoscopy. The doctor inserts a long, flexible, lighted tube linked to a computer and TV monitor into the anus.  An upper endoscopy is often performed to view the upper GI tract from the mouth to the small intestine.

      The doctor may also do a biopsy, which involves taking a sample of tissue from the lining of the intestine to view with a microscope.

    • What are the complications of Crohn's disease?
    • Answer:

      The most common complication of Crohn's disease is blockage of the intestine. Blockage occurs because the disease tends to thicken the intestinal wall with swelling and scar tissue, narrowing the passage.

      Crohn's disease may also cause sores, or ulcers, that tunnel through the affected area into surrounding tissues, such as the bladder, vagina, or skin. If an abnormal connection persists between these organs, a fistula develops.

      Nutritional complications are common in Crohn's disease. These deficiencies may be caused by inadequate dietary intake, intestinal loss of protein, or poor absorption, also referred to as malabsorption.

      Other complications associated with Crohn's disease include arthritis, skin problems, inflammation in the eyes or mouth, kidney stones, gallstones, or other diseases of the liver and biliary system. Some of these problems resolve during treatment for disease in the digestive system, but some must be treated separately.

    • What is ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Ulcerative colitis is a disease that causes inflammation and sores, called ulcers, in the lining of the rectum and colon. Ulcers form where inflammation has killed the cells that usually line the colon, then bleed and produce pus. Inflammation in the colon also causes the colon to empty frequently, causing diarrhea.

    • Who gets ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Ulcerative colitis can occur in people of any age, but it usually starts between the ages of 15 and 40, and less frequently between 50 and 70 years of age. It affects men and women equally and appears to run in families, with reports of up to 20% of people with ulcerative colitis having a family member or relative with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. A higher incidence of ulcerative colitis is seen in whites and people of Jewish descent.


    • What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Patients also may experience

      • anemia
      • fatigue
      • weight loss
      • loss of appetite
      • rectal bleeding
      • loss of body fluids and nutrients
      • skin lesions
      • joint pain
      • growth failure (specifically in children)

      About half of the people diagnosed with ulcerative colitis have mild symptoms. Others suffer frequent fevers, bloody diarrhea, nausea, and severe abdominal cramps.

    • What are the other complications associated with ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Ulcerative colitis may also cause problems such as arthritis, inflammation of the eye, liver disease, and osteoporosis. It is not known why these problems occur outside the colon. Scientists think these complications may be the result of inflammation triggered by the immune system. Some of these problems go away when the colitis is treated.

    • What causes ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Many theories exist about what causes ulcerative colitis. People with ulcerative colitis have abnormalities of the immune system, but doctors do not know whether these abnormalities are a cause or a result of the disease. The body’s immune system is believed to react abnormally to the bacteria in the digestive tract.

      Ulcerative colitis is not caused by emotional distress or sensitivity to certain foods or food products, but these factors may trigger symptoms in some people. The stress of living with ulcerative colitis may also contribute to a worsening of symptoms.

    • What are the treatments for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Treatment for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis may include drugs, nutrition supplements, surgery, or a combination of these options. Treatment for Crohn's disease depends on the location and severity of disease, complications, and the person's response to previous medical treatments when treated for reoccurring symptoms. Many of the treatments are used for both conditions.

      Someone with inflammatory bowel disease may need medical care for a long time, with regular doctor visits to monitor the condition.

    • What drug therapies are available for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      Anti-Inflammation drugs. Patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis may respond differently to the various drugs in this class, so treatment regimens are unique to each individual. Most people are first treated with drugs containing 5-ASA, or 5-aminosalicylates, a substance that helps control inflammation. Mesalamine (Asacol, Pentasa, Lialda, Apriso) is the most commonly used of these drugs. Patients who do not benefit from it or who cannot tolerate it may be put on other 5-ASA-containing drugs, such as sulfasalazine (Azulfidine, Sulfazine), olsalazine (Dipentum), or balsalazide (Colazal, Giazo) Pentasa. Possible side effects of mesalamine-containing drugs include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, and headache.

      Steroids. Corticosteriods are one of the oldest treatments and provide very effective results. Prednisone is a common generic name of one of the drugs in this group of medications. In the beginning, when the disease it at its worst, prednisone is usually prescribed in a large dose. The dosage is then lowered and usually discontinued once symptoms have been controlled. These drugs can cause serious side effects, including greater susceptibility to infection.  Budesonide is another steroid drug that has less systemic effects.

      Immune system suppressors. Drugs that suppress the immune system are also used to treat Crohn's disease. Most commonly prescribed for refractory inflammatory bowel disease are 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP) or a related drug, azathioprine. Immunosuppressive agents work by blocking the immune reaction that contributes to inflammation. These drugs may cause side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and may lower a person's resistance to infection.

      Biologics. Infliximab ( Remicade) is the first of a group of medications that blocks the body's inflammation response. The FDA approved the drug for the treatment of moderate to severe Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis that does not respond to standard therapies (mesalamine substances, corticosteroids, immunosuppressive agents) and for the treatment of open, draining fistulas. Other drugs in this class include adalimumab (Humira), vedolizumab (Entyvio), natalizumab (Tysabri), golimumab (Simponi), and certolizumab pegol (Cimzia). Remicade, Entyvio, Humira, and Simponi are the biologics FDA-approved for use in those with ulcerative colitis. Biologics can have serious side effects and are usually used when more conventional therapy fails.

      Antibiotics. In Crohn’s disease antibiotics are used to treat bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine caused by stricture, fistulas, or prior surgery. For this common problem, the doctor most commonly prescribes ciprofloxacin or metronidazole.

      Anti-diarrheal and fluid replacements. Diarrhea and abdominal cramps are often relieved when the inflammation subsides, but additional medication may also be necessary. Several antidiarrheal agents could be used, including diphenoxylate, loperamide, and codeine. Patients who are dehydrated because of diarrhea will be treated with fluids and electrolytes.

    • What type of nutrition supplementation is needed for those with irritable bowel disease?
    • Answer:

      The doctor may recommend nutritional supplements for those with IBD, especially for children whose growth has been slowed. Special high-calorie liquid formulas are sometimes used for this purpose.

    • Is surgery ever required to treat irritable bowel disease?
    • Answer:

      Two-thirds to three-quarters of patients with Crohn's disease will require surgery at some point in their lives. About 25% to 40% of ulcerative colitis patients must eventually have their colons removed because of massive bleeding, severe illness, rupture of the colon, or risk of cancer.

      Surgery becomes necessary when medications can no longer control symptoms. Surgery is used either to relieve symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy or to correct complications such as blockage, perforation, abscess, or bleeding in the intestine. Surgery to remove part of the intestine can help people with Crohn's disease, but it is not a cure. Surgery does not eliminate the disease as inflammation tends to return to the area next to where the diseased intestine was removed.

      In ulcerative colitis, surgery maybe needed to remove the colon and/or rectum.

    • Is colon cancer a concern with ulcerative colitis?
    • Answer:

      About 5%-10% of people with ulcerative colitis develop colon cancer. The risk of cancer increases with the duration of the disease and how much the colon has been damaged. For example, if only the lower colon and rectum are involved, the risk of cancer is not much higher than normal. However, if the entire colon is involved, the risk of cancer may be as much as 32 times the normal rate.

      Sometimes precancerous changes occur in the cells lining the colon. These changes are called "dysplasia." People who have dysplasia are more likely to develop cancer than those who do not. Doctors look for signs of dysplasia when doing a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy and when examining tissue removed during these tests.

      According to the guidelines for colon cancer screening, people who have had pancolitis (involving the entire large intestine) for at least eight years should have a colonoscopy with biopsies every one to two years to check for dysplasia.  Such screening has not been proven to reduce the risk of colon cancer, but it may help identify cancer early. These guidelines were produced by an independent expert panel and endorsed by numerous organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the American College of Gastroenterology, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, and the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.

    WebMD Medical Reference

    Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 12, 2015

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