What You Need to Know About Crohn's Disease

Crohn's Disease and the Digestive Tract

Illustration of the autoimmune disease, Crohnis disease.
BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Crohn's disease is an incurable disease of the digestive tract that is characterized by inflammation that goes through cycles of flare-ups and remissions. That's just one sentence to describe an incredibly complicated disease process that is difficult for even the best scientists in medicine to understand. Even so, the best thing a person with Crohn's disease can do is to get educated about this disease. With this information, patients can become better able to advocate for themselves with the overall goal of getting better care and control of the disease.

Ready to get started? Keep reading to learn what you absolutely must know.

Crohn's Disease Is a Form Of IBD

Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term that encompasses Crohns' disease as well as ulcerative colitis and indeterminate colitis. These diseases are often lumped together for many purposes, and are often considered a disease spectrum, but they are different in therms of symptoms and treatment. Image © Amber J Tresca

Crohn's disease one form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is an umbrella term, and the other main form of the disease is called ulcerative colitis. However, IBD is not always as distinct as having either Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Many IBD specialists agree that the disease is more like a spectrum rather than two separate diseases. In fact, there is another form of IBD that is used when the disease is not clearly either Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, and that is called indeterminate colitis (ID).

Crohn's disease and IBD are not related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a functional disorder that is more common than IBD but does not involve inflammation or ulceration of the digestive tract.


Bhandari BM, Kroser JA, Bloomfeld RS, Lynch SP. "Inflammatory Bowel Disease." American College of Gastroenterology 2015. 3 Aug 2015.

There Is No Cure for Crohn's Disease

Tree Bark
"Tree bark" has become synonymous in the IBD community with a sham cure. Anyone who claims that their product will cure IBD is just taking your money. Image © E+ / Getty Images

Crohn's disease and other forms of IBD are lifelong, chronic conditions. Many people are able to control their Crohn's disease symptoms through medication, diet, and/or alternative therapies. Some people may feel so well that it prompts them to think that they are "cured." In reality, they may be experiencing what's called "long-term remission." This is a goal for all treatment of Crohn's disease — a sustained period of remission where there are few or no symptoms as well as mucosal healing, meaning no inflammation found in the digestive tract during a test such as an upper endoscopy, a colonoscopy, or a sigmoidoscopy.

However, Crohn's disease starts in a person's genes, and therefore it can't currently be cured. One thing many people with IBD need to navigate is the number of people and companies on the Internet who claim they can "cure" IBD. People with Crohn's disease should reflect on the Latin saying, caveat emptor — "let the buyer beware" before investing in "cures" sold online.


Wood M. "Why haven’t we cured inflammatory bowel disease?" ScienceLife. 6 Mar 2015. 4 Aug 2015.


Unintended weight loss is part of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Image © IAN HOOTON

Crohn's disease can cause a wide range of symptoms, but some of the more common ones include:

Other potential symptoms include bleeding from the rectum, joint pains, nausea, and vomiting. While there are many similarities in the course the disease takes, every person with Crohn's disease experiences their symptoms differently.


The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. "What is Crohn’s Disease?" CCFA.org 2015. 3 Aug 2015.

Extra-Intestinal Symptoms

Woman lying on bed with stomach cramps

Crohn's disease doesn't just cause symptoms in the digestive tract; there can be signs and symptoms in other parts of the body as well. These are often called extra-intestinal symptoms, and quite a few body systems could be involved. In some cases, these problems can be quite serious and have a significant impact on quality of life. Some of the extra-intestinal signs and symptoms of Crohn's disease can include:

We Don't Know What Causes Crohn's Disease

Stress and IBD have a complicated and misunderstood relationship. Photo © David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the chief concerns with Crohn's disease and the other forms of IBD is the cause of the disease. We still don't know exactly what causes Crohn's disease, though there are some theories. It's thought that Crohn's disease is in the genes, and is then triggered by something (and probably several somethings) that a person is exposed to in the environment. When we don't know what causes a disease, we call it an idiopathic disease, or a disease with unknown cause.

In the past, the development of Crohn's disease and other forms of IBD was blamed on stress, food, or mental illness. We now know that these ideas are all false. That's not to say that foods, stress, or other illnesses can't be a trigger to set off a flare-up of the disease, but they're not the cause of the disease. The cause of the disease ultimately lies in our genes and then a complex environmental mechanism that we don't yet fully understand.


The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. "What is Crohn’s Disease?" CCFA.org 2015. 3 Aug 2015.

Surgery Is Common

Patient And Physician
Surgery is commonly used to treat Crohn's disease, especially when medications fail and when there are other problems present, such as a stricture or a blockage. Image © Image Source / Getty

When we think of treatments for Crohn's disease we often picture medications such as oral drugs, injections, or enemas or suppositories. But surgery is also considered a form of treatment for Crohn's disease. In fact, surgery is quite common in people with Crohn's disease, with up to 70% of all people with Crohn's needing surgery at some point in the course of their disease. For those who have ​the disease that is primarily located in the small intestine, anywhere from 40% to 60% will have surgery in the first 10 years after being diagnosed.

One of the more common types of surgery that is used to treat Crohn's disease is resection surgery. A resection is done to remove a section of the intestine that is very ulcerated or narrowed as a result of the Crohn's disease. Other types of surgery may be done to treat Crohn's disease as well, including ileostomy surgery.


The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. "Crohn’s Treatment Options" CCFA.org 2015. 3 Aug 2015.

Smoking Has a Detrimental Effect on Crohn's Disease

Smoking cigarettes is known to have an effect on Crohn's disease, and people with Crohn's who smoke may experience a flare-up. Image © CDC / Debora Cartagena

We now know that smoking cigarettes has a negative effect on overall health. The focus tends to be on how smoking increases a person's risk of developing lung cancer, but smoking also has a profound effect on Crohn's disease. In fact, smokers and former smokers both carry an increased risk of developing Crohn's disease. People with Crohn's disease who smoke tend to have a high risk of having the disease recur with flare-ups. Even secondhand smoke may play a role — children exposed to secondhand smoke may have an increased risk of developing the disease too.


Gearry RB, Richardson AK, Frampton CM, Dodgshun AJ, Barclay ML. "Population-based cases control study of inflammatory bowel disease risk factors." J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010 Feb;25(2):325-33. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1746.2009.06140.x. Epub 2010 Jan 14. 3 Aug 2015.

People With Crohn's Disease Are at Risk of Colon Cancer

Colon Cancer Stages
The stages of colon cancer have different symptoms as well as different treatments. Image © Getty Images

One of the many concerns of people who have Crohn's disease is the development of colon cancer. Colon cancer is on the decline thanks to better screening methods, but people with IBD are at a higher risk of developing the disease simply by having IBD. The good news is that more than 90% of people with IBD never develop cancer.

However, it is very important for people with Crohn's disease and other forms of IBD to get regular screening for colon cancer. People with IBD need regular maintenance of their disease, and typically have colonoscopies on a regular basis. A colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening, making it a way to keep an eye on the Crohn's disease as well as to screen for colon cancer.


Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. "Bringing to Light the Risk of Colorectal Cancer Among Crohn’s & Ulcerative Colitis Patients." CCFA.org 2012. 3 Aug 2015.

Women With Crohn's Disease Can Have Healthy Children

Pregnancy Test
A positive pregnancy test could be frightening for women who are taking prednisone, but there are steps that can help minimize risks to baby. Image © Amber J Tresca

In the past, women with IBD were counseled against having children, because it was thought that the risks to the mother and the baby were too great. In fact, having a healthy pregnancy and baby are both possible. Certain women with Crohn's disease may experience a decrease in their fertility, but conception is possible. What is agreed-upon is that the best time for a woman with Crohn's disease to consider pregnancy is during remission. Studies show that becoming pregnant during a flare-up of the disease is associated with the potential for more complications for both mother and baby.

A main concern is the effect that medications may have on the growing baby. For older medications, there is more information to go on when it comes to effects on a pregnancy, but newer drugs may not have as much information available. That's why the Food and Drug Administration rates medications in regards to their potential affects during pregnancy. Obstetricians and gastroenterologists should work together to ensure that women with IBD are receiving the proper care for themselves and their baby.


Nørgård BM. "Birth outcome in women with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, and pharmacoepidemiological aspects of anti-inflammatory drug therapy." Dan Med Bull. 2011 Dec;58(12):B4360. 4 Aug 2015.

Crohn's Disease Can Appear Anywhere in the Digestive Tract

Doctor examining child's mouth
Getty Images/Tom Merton

Inflammatory bowel disease can be a confusing term when it comes to Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease can actually cause signs and symptoms anywhere between the mouth and the anus. This might be quite surprising to some people who consider it a "pooping" disease because it goes further than just the large intestine. It is rare to have Crohn's disease of the esophagus, stomach, and mouth, but it does occur. It is more common in children to see Crohn's disease start in the mouth, though it is still considered rare.


Zbar AP, Ben-Horin S, Beer-Gabel M, Eliakim R. "Oral Crohn's disease: is it a separable disease from orofacial granulomatosis? A review." J Crohns Colitis. 2012 Mar;6(2):135-42. doi: 10.1016/j.crohns.2011.07.001. Epub 2011 Aug 9. 4 Aug 2015.