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Understanding Crohn’s Disease

What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease?

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease often develop gradually. Certain symptoms may also become worse over time.

Although it’s possible, it’s rare for symptoms to develop suddenly and dramatically.

The earliest symptoms of Crohn’s disease can include:

  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramps
  • blood in your stool
  • a fever
  • fatigue
  • a loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • feeling as if your bowels aren’t empty after a bowel movement
  • feeling a frequent need for bowel movements

It’s sometimes possible to mistake these symptoms for the symptoms of another condition, such as food poisoning, an upset stomach, or an allergy. You should see your doctor if these symptoms persist.

The symptoms may become more severe as the disease progresses. These symptoms can include:

  • a perianal fistula, which causes pain and drainage near your anus
  • ulcers that may occur anywhere from the mouth to the anus
  • inflammation of the joints and skin

Early detection and diagnosis can help you avoid severe complications and allow you to begin treatment early.

Learn more about the symptoms of Crohn’s disease »

What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. As many as 700,000 Americans have Crohn’s disease.

More research about this disease is necessary. Researchers aren’t sure how it begins, who is most likely to develop it, or how to best treat it. Despite major advances in treatment in the last three decades, no cure is available for Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease most commonly occurs in the small intestine and the colon. The disease can affect any part of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, from your mouth to your anus. The disease can involve some parts of the GI tract and skip other parts.

What may be mild or irritating for some can be painful and debilitating for others. The symptoms vary and can change over time. In some people, the disease can lead to life-threatening complications.

Develop a broader understanding of Crohn’s disease »

Dietary recommendations for people with Crohn’s disease

A diet plan that works for one person with Crohn’s disease may not work for another. This is because the disease can involve different areas of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in different people. It’s important to find out what works best for you. Changes to your diet and lifestyle may help you reduce the recurrence of symptoms and lessen their severity.

If you have Crohn’s disease, you should:

Adjust your fiber intake

Some people need a high-fiber, high-protein diet. For others, the presence of extra food residue from high-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables may aggravate the GI tract. If this is the case, you may need to switch to a low-residue diet.

Learn more about the low-residue diet for Crohn’s disease »

Limit your fat intake

Crohn’s disease may interfere with your body’s ability to break down and absorb fat. This excess fat will pass from your small intestine to your colon. This could lead to diarrhea.

Limit your dairy intake

You may not have lactose intolerance, but your body may respond in a similar way if you have Crohn’s disease. Consuming dairy can lead to an upset stomach, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea for some people.

Drink water

Crohn’s disease may affect your body’s ability to "recycle" water from your digestive tract. This can lead to dehydration. The risk for dehydration is especially high if you’re having diarrhea.

Consider alternative sources of vitamins and minerals

Crohn’s disease can affect your intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients from your food properly. Eating high-nutrient foods may not be enough. Talk to your doctor about the use of multivitamins, and ask them if they’re right for you.

Work with your doctor to figure out what best suits your needs. They may refer you to a dietician or nutritionist. Together, you can identify your dietary limitations and create guidelines for a well-balanced diet.

Check out these tips for eating better »

Treatment for Crohn’s disease

A cure isn’t available for Crohn’s disease, but it can be manageable. A variety of treatment options may be able to lessen the severity and frequency of your symptoms.


More than four classes of medication are used to treat Crohn’s disease. First-line treatments include anti-inflammatory drugs. More advanced options include biologics, which use the body’s immune system to treat the disease.

Dietary changes

Food doesn’t cause Crohn’s disease, but it can trigger disease flares. Once you have a definitive diagnosis, your doctor will likely suggest that you make an appointment with a registered dietitian (RD). An RD will guide you through the process of understanding how food affects your symptoms.

In the beginning, they may ask you to keep a food diary. This food diary will detail what you ate and how it made you feel. Using this information, the RD will set out guidelines for you to follow. These nutrition and dietary changes should help you absorb nutrition from the food you eat while also limiting any side effects the food may cause.


If less invasive treatments and lifestyle changes don’t alter or improve your symptoms, surgery may be necessary. During surgery, your doctor will remove damaged portions of your digestive tract and reconnect the healthy sections.

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are two types of inflammatory bowl diseases (IBD). They have many of the same characteristics, and people may mistake them for one another.

The have the following characteristics in common:

  • The first signs and symptoms of both Crohn’s disease and UC are very similar. These symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, rectal bleeding, fever, and fatigue.
  • Both UC and Crohn’s disease occur more commonly in people ages 15 to 35 and people with a family history of either type of IBD.
  • UC and Crohn’s disease affect men and women equally.
  • Despite decades of research, scientists still don’t know what causes either disease. In both cases, an overactive immune system is a likely culprit, but other factors may play a role.

Here’s how they differ:

  • UC only affects the colon. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of your gastrointestinal tract, from your mouth to your anus.
  • UC only affects the innermost layer of tissue in your colon. Crohn’s disease can affect all layers of your intestinal tissue.

UC is just one type of colitis. Several other types of colitis exist. Not all forms of colitis cause intestinal inflammation and damage in the same way as UC.

Learn more about the relationship between Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease »

What causes Crohn’s disease?

It isn’t clear what causes Crohn’s disease. However, the following factors may influence whether you get it:

  • your immune system
  • your genetics
  • your environment

Up to 20 percent of people with Crohn’s disease also have a parent, child, or sibling with the disease.

Certain things can affect the severity of your symptoms. This includes:

  • whether you smoke
  • your age
  • your stress levels

Learn more about what causes Crohn’s disease »

Medication for Crohn’s disease

Several types of medications are available to treat Crohn’s. First-line treatments include anti-inflammatory drugs. More advanced options include biologics, which use the body’s immune system to treat the disease.

Which medicine you need and which treatment your doctor may combine it with depends on your symptoms, your disease history, and the severity of your condition.

Anti-inflammatory drugs

The two main types of anti-inflammatory drugs doctors use to treat Crohn’s are oral 5-aminosalicylates and corticosteroids. Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first drugs people take for Crohn’s disease treatment. People taking these drugs usually have mild symptoms with infrequent disease flares.


An overactive immune system causes the inflammation that leads to the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. Immunomodulators may reduce the inflammatory response and weaken your immune system’s reaction.


Some doctors believe antibiotics may help reduce some of the symptoms of Crohn’s and some of the possible triggers for it. For example, antibiotics can reduce drainage and heal fistulas that Crohn’s causes. Antibiotics can also kill off any foreign or "bad" bacteria present in your gut that could be contributing to inflammation.

Biologic therapies

If you have severe Crohn’s, your doctor may try a number of biologic therapies to treat the inflammation and complications that can occur from the disease. Biologic therapies can stop the growth of specific proteins that may trigger inflammation.

Diagnosing Crohn’s disease

No single test result can allow your doctor to diagnose Crohn’s disease. Your doctor will begin by eliminating any other possible causes of your symptoms. Making a Crohn’s disease diagnosis is a process of elimination.

Your doctor may use several types of tests to make a diagnosis:

  • Blood tests can help your doctor look for certain indicators of potential problems, such as anemia.
  • A stool test can help your doctor detect blood in your stool.
  • Your doctor may request an endoscopy to get a better image of the inside of your upper gastrointestinal tract.
  • Your doctor may perform a colonoscopy to examine the lower half of your bowel.
  • Imaging tests like CT scans and MRIs give your doctor more detail than an average X-ray. Both tests allow your doctor to see specific areas of your tissues and organs.

Once your doctor has completed the necessary tests and ruled out other possible reasons for your symptoms, they may decide on a Crohn’s disease diagnosis. Your doctor may request these tests several more times to look for diseased tissue and determine how the disease is progressing.

Learn more about how Crohn’s disease is diagnosed »

Natural treatments for Crohn’s disease

Many people use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for various conditions and diseases, including Crohn’s disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved most of these medicines, but many people use them in addition to mainstream treatments.

Popular alternative treatments for Crohn’s disease include the following:

  • Probiotics are live bacteria that can help you replace and rebuild the good bacteria in your body. Probiotics may also help prevent microorganisms from upsetting your gut’s natural balance and causing a Crohn’s flare.
  • Prebiotics are beneficial bacteria found in plants, such as asparagus, artichokes, and leeks. These may also help boost the supply of good bacteria in your gut.
  • Fish oil is rich in omega-3s, and it has shown some promising results as a possible treatment for people with Crohn’s disease.
  • Many people believe certain herbs, vitamins, and minerals cure or ease the symptoms of a variety of diseases, including Crohn’s disease.
  • Acupuncture is an alternative treatment for many conditions. It may help relieve stress, which has been shown to ease flares and the severity of symptoms.
  • People believe that the aloe vera plant has anti-inflammatory properties. Because inflammation is one of the key components of Crohn’s disease, people often use it as a natural anti-inflammatory.

Tell your doctor if you use any CAM treatments. Some of these treatments may negatively impact the efficiency of medicines or other treatments your doctor prescribes for you. In some cases, an interaction could be dangerous, even life-threatening. Tell your doctor about all of the treatments you’re taking, even if they’re not traditional treatments.

Learn more about the natural treatments available for Crohn’s disease »

Crohn’s disease statistics

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) reports the following statistics:

  • A total of 1.4 million Americans have some form of inflammatory bowel disease. This total includes 600,000 Americans who have Crohn’s disease.
  • People who smoke are twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.
  • If they get treatment, 50 percent of people will have Crohn’s disease that goes into remission or creates mild symptoms within five years of their diagnosis.
  • About 11 percent of people who have Crohn’s will experience a chronically active disease.

The CCFA also reports the following:

  • In 2004, 1.1 million doctors’ office visits were for the treatment and care of Crohn’s disease.
  • In 2010, Crohn’s disease accounted for 187,000 hospitalizations.
  • The average person with Crohn’s disease will spend $8,265 annually to treat or manage the disease directly.

Researchers for the text Crohn’s Disease report the following:

  • The rate of Crohn’s disease is 1.1 to 1.8 times higher in women than men.
  • The peak of Crohn’s disease diagnosis is between 15 and 30. Most people who have a diagnosis of the disease will receive it in early adulthood.
  • The second peak of diagnosis is in people who are 60 to 70 years old.

Check out more statistics about Crohn’s disease »

Crohn’s disease and disability benefits

Crohn’s disease can disrupt your work and personal life. It can also cause financial stress. If you don’t have health insurance and sometimes even if you do, your out-of-pocket expenses can total several thousand dollars per year.

If the disease becomes severe enough that it’s affecting your daily life in a significant way, you should consider filing for disability. If you can prove that your condition prevents you from working or has prevented you from working for the last year, you may be eligible to receive disability income. Social Security Disability Insurance or Social Security Income may provide this type of assistance.

Applying for disability can be a long and tedious process. It requires a lot of appointments and checkups with doctors. You may have to pay for multiple doctors’ visits if you don’t have insurance. You’ll need to take time off of work if you’re currently employed. You could face a lot of ups and downs as you work through the process. You may also receive a denial and have to begin the whole process again.

You can begin your Social Security application process by doing one of the following:

  • Apply online.
  • Call the Social Security Administration’s toll-free hotline at 800-772-1213 anytime Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Find and visit your nearest Social Security office.

Learn more about Crohn’s disease and disability benefits »

What are the types of Crohn’s disease?

Five different types of Crohn’s disease exist. They include the following:

  • Gastroduodenal Crohn’s disease affects your stomach and the duodenum, which is the first part of your small intestine. About 5 percent of people with Crohn’s disease have this type.
  • Jejunoileitis occurs in the second portion of your intestine, called the jejunum. This type affects about 5 percent of people with Crohn’s disease.
  • Ileitis is inflammation in the last part of the small intestine, or ileum. About 30 percent of people with Crohn’s disease have this condition.
  • Ileocolitis, which affects the ileum and the colon, is the most common type of Crohn’s. Approximately 50 percent of people with Crohn’s disease have this type.
  • About 20 percent of people with Crohn’s disease have Crohn’s colitis, which affects the colon only. Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s colitis impact the colon only, but Crohn’s colitis also forms patches of diseased tissue in the colon.

Learn more about the different types of Crohn’s disease »

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kimberly Holland
Medically reviewed on: Jul 07, 2016: Graham Rogers, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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