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Crohn Disease (The Basics)

What is Crohn disease?

Crohn disease is a disorder that can cause diarrhea, belly pain, and other symptoms that affect the digestive tract. The digestive tract is the part of the body that takes in and breaks down food. It includes the mouth, the stomach, and the intestines.

When it is working normally, the body’s immune system kills germs and “bad” cells that could turn into cancer. Sometimes, instead of killing only bad cells, something goes wrong and the immune system starts to attack healthy cells. That is called an “autoimmune response.” This is what happens in Crohn disease. If you have Crohn disease, your body is attacking the lining of your digestive tract. This causes inflammation, which can lead to sores (ulcers) and bleeding.

The symptoms of Crohn disease can get better or worse at different times. But the condition cannot be cured. Luckily, there are medicines and other treatments that can improve its symptoms.

What are the symptoms of Crohn disease?

The most common symptoms are diarrhea, belly pain, feeling tired, weight loss, and fever. Some people with Crohn disease also get mouth sores, skin rashes, joint pain, and eye redness.

Is there a test for Crohn disease?

Yes. There are a few tests that can help diagnose Crohn disease. Doctors use X-rays or scans to look at the upper intestine and a test called “colonoscopy” to look at the lower intestine. During a colonoscopy, the doctor puts a thin tube into your anus and up into the rectum and colon. The tube has a camera attached to it, so the doctor can look inside your colon and the last part of your small intestine.

Depending on your symptoms, you might get other tests, too. This can help your doctor figure out if something other than Crohn disease is causing your symptoms.

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better?

Yes. Your symptoms might improve if you:

  • Cut down on foods that make your symptoms worse. Some people have problems with foods that have a lot of fiber, such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Quit smoking, if you smoke. Smoking makes symptoms worse and increases the chances that you will need surgery.
  • Avoid medicines such as ibuprofen (sample brand names: Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (sample brand name: Aleve).

How is Crohn disease treated?

There are many different medicines that help reduce the symptoms of Crohn disease. Almost all of these medicines work by reducing inflammation and the body’s immune response. Some medicines treat symptoms when they are at their worst. Other medicines help keep symptoms from starting up or coming back.

You might have to try a few different medicines before you find the one that works best for you.

Is surgery an option?

Surgery is helpful if medicines do not do enough to control your symptoms or if the medicines cause side effects that you can’t stand. Surgery does not cure the disease, but it can help you to feel better and return to normal activities. The 2 most common types of surgery to treat Crohn disease work by:

  • Removing of the diseased part of the colon
  • Re-opening parts of the colon that have become blocked

Does Crohn disease lead to colon cancer?

It can. Your risk depends on how long you’ve had it and whether your colon is affected. Experts suggest that people with long-term Crohn disease that affects the colon get screened with colonoscopy regularly.

What will my life be like?

People with Crohn disease often need lifelong treatment. But with treatment, many people with the condition are able to live fairly normal lives.

What if I want to get pregnant?

In most cases, Crohn disease does not affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant. If you want to get pregnant, talk to your doctor or nurse before you start trying to get pregnant. He or she can make sure you get all the tests you need before and during your pregnancy. Plus, your doctor or nurse might want to switch your medicines. That’s because some of the medicines used to treat Crohn disease might not be safe for a baby.

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