digestive tract diagram
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What Is It?

This type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes swelling or irritation in the lining of your digestive tract. That's a series of hollow organs that form a tube from your mouth to your anus. Crohn's mostly affects the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. But it also can show up in any part of the digestive tract. This sets it apart from other IBDs.

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empty toilet paper roll
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What Are the Symptoms?

Because this disease is chronic, meaning it affects you for a long time, symptoms can come and go. They might strike without warning. You’ll notice:

  • Frequent bouts of diarrhea that over-the-counter drugs don’t help
  • Blood in your poop or in the toilet
  • Feeling like you need to go but can’t
  • Intense cramps or stomach pain with nausea and vomiting
  • Ongoing fever or weight loss you can’t explain
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canker sores
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Can It Affect Other Body Parts?

Yes. Symptoms might appear outside your intestines, such as:

  • Painful mouth ulcers like canker sores
  • Swelling in your eyes or under your skin
  • Arthritis-like stiffness in your joints or spine
  • Fissures -- small tears -- in the anus

 

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Who Gets It?

Crohn’s tends to run in families. It’s most common in people of Eastern European Jewish descent. The number of cases that African-Americans say they're getting has gone up in recent years. Some people are diagnosed early, between the ages of 15-35. But the disease can hit someone of any age or ethnic background, and it affects both men and women.

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What Causes It?

Other than family history, scientists aren’t sure exactly why people get Crohn’s. Things that can boost your chances include:

  • Faulty immune system
  • Living in an urban or industrial area
  • Smoking
  • Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Some doctors think that while a super clean, germ-free childhood keeps illness away when you're young, it could make you likely to get immune system disorders like Crohn’s later on.

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How Is It Diagnosed?

There’s no one test for Crohn’s. Your doctor likely will rule out other causes for your symptoms first. She might give you a colonoscopy. This uses a thin, lighted tube to look inside your colon. Other ways include a CT scan or an MRI, which let the doctor view your whole digestive tract. Or he might try a capsule endoscopy. You'll swallow a capsule with a tiny camera in it for this test.

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How Is It Treated?

Your doctor probably will want you to try a mix of meds and lifestyle changes. He’ll work to control the swelling. This helps your intestines heal and eases your symptoms. The right drugs also can cut down on flare-ups. Many people with Crohn’s will need surgery at some point. It won’t cure the disease, but it can get rid of the diseased parts of your digestive tract while saving the healthy parts.

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colon cancer
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What About Cancer?

Crohn’s in the large intestine has been linked to colon cancer. Stay in treatment and keep your symptoms under control to lower your risk. Regular screening tests help, too. Your doctor can tell you how often you need to get tested. That in itself won’t lower your risk, but it can help catch the disease early and improve your chances for a recovery.

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What Else Might Help?

Some people try complementary and alternative treatments to help ease Crohn’s symptoms. The main types include:

  • Mind-body practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi, and hypnosis
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Massage or reflexology
  • Energy medicine such as Reiki -- a healing technique using touch -- or qi gong
  • Supplements, vitamins, and probiotics

If you think you might want to try any of these, ask your doctor first if it’s safe -- and if it works. Make sure the treatment is right for you and won’t get in the way of your medical care.

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Should I Change My Diet?

Yes. You can eat certain foods -- and avoid others -- to lessen your symptoms. Your doctor might put you on a fixed meal plan that restricts some foods. Or he might ask you to switch up your habits, like:

  • Skip carbonated drinks.
  • Limit some high-fiber foods.
  • Drink more liquids.
  • Eat frequent, small meals.
  • Keep track of what you eat so you can target problem foods.
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daughter helping mother with dishes
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What Does the Future Look Like?

You can have the disease and still enjoy a normal life. Keep your body healthy, stick to your doctor’s advice, and reach out to others. All these things can help you manage the disease and thrive in spite of it. To make your days easier, you can:

  • Ask for or hire extra help around the house.
  • Connect with other people who have Crohn’s or other IBDs.
  • Watch what you eat and drink to help keep your symptoms at bay.
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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 03/23/2016 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 23, 2016

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SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Crohn’s Disease: Symptoms,” “Crohn’s Disease: Risk Factors,” “Crohn’s Disease: Tests and Diagnosis.”

Molodecky, N. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, May 2010.

Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America: “Crohn’s Treatment Options,” “What is Crohn’s Disease?” “Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM),” “Living with Crohn’s & Colitis.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Crohn’s Disease?”

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 23, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.