Know Your IBD History

A Little Digging Can Give You A Clearer Picture Of How IBD Runs In Your Family

Family IBD History
A sample of a simple chart tracking IBD and other digestive problems in an extended family.. Image © Amber J Tresca

Did you know that inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) runs in families? However, it's more complicated than just inheriting your father's eye color or your mother's complexion. While we don't know exactly what causes IBD, we do know that there are more than 100 genes that have been connected to IBD so far.

IBD is not necessarily passed directly from parent to child (although that can happen). Yet when people with IBD dig into their medical history, they may find family members -- both close and extended -- that have gastrointestinal problems.

Putting together your family's medical history can be difficult. Gastrointestinal disorders can be a taboo topic, and there may be family members who do not want to discuss their medical problems. In the case of deceased family members, such as grandparents or great-grandparents, you may discover that their children or siblings will acknowledge that a problem existed, but it was never diagnosed or treated by a physician. In cases where the family member saw a doctor, an older term that is no longer used -- ileitis -- may have been the diagnosis.

Questions to Ask

"Tummy troubles" won't necessarily come up in casual conversation around the dinner table, so asking the right questions (perhaps even some very direct questions) may be the only way to get an accurate family history.

  • Is your family of Jewish descent? Crohn's disease tends to run in families more so than ulcerative colitis. In particular, families of Jewish descent have a higher risk of Crohn's disease.
  • Have any family members ever been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, gastritis, or another digestive condition? IBD is sometimes misdiagnosed as other conditions. This may be especially true for older family members who were diagnosed or treated decades ago.
  • If a family member did have an unnamed/undiagnosed digestive problem, what were/are the symptoms? This question is best asked of the person who had the problem, if possible.
  • Has anyone in the family had colon cancer? There is a strong relationship between IBD and colon cancer, so knowing the family history of colon cancer is extremely important. If a family member has had colon cancer, find out at what age he was diagnosed. Knowing the age at diagnosis can help a physician determine when other family members should be screened for colon cancer.

Putting it Together

Once you have all this information about your family gastrointestinal history, you'll want to put it all down on paper. Getting it laid out in front of you may help uncover a pattern. You can do this by writing a list of family members and how their medical history relates to IBD. You can also create a family tree. Start with yourself and your immediate family, and connect your family members. This will give you a good picture of how IBD runs in your family.


Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. About the Epidemiology of IBD. CCFA 2007. Aug 27 2012.

Peeters M, Nevens H, Baert F, et al. "Familial aggregation in Crohn's disease: Increased age, adjusted risk and concordance in clinical characteristics." Gastroenterology 1996. Oct 18 2007.

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