Digestive Diseases: Crohn's Disease


Crohn's disease is a chronic illness of children and adults in which the intestines (bowel) become inflamed. The disease affects the full thickness of the intestinal wall and this inflammation can lead to serious complications that may require surgery. The condition typically affects the lower part of the small intestine (ileum), although it can occur in any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus. Sections of diseased bowel can be interrupted by sections of healthy bowel. Crohn's disease can disrupt the normal function of the bowel in a number of ways, causing the tissue to:

  • Swell and thicken, narrowing or blocking the passageway inside the bowel.
  • Develop ulcers that involve the deep layers of the wall of the bowel.
  • Lose its ability to absorb nutrients from digested foods (malabsorption).
  • Develop abnormal passageways (fistulas) from one part of the bowel to another part of the bowel, or from the bowel to a nearby organ.

When grouped together, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are referred to as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) because they cause inflammation of the bowel (intestines).

What Are the Symptoms of Crohn's Disease?

People with Crohn's disease can experience periods of severe symptoms followed by periods of remission that can last for weeks or years. The symptoms of Crohn's disease depend on where the disease occurs in the bowel and its severity. In general, symptoms can include:

Other symptoms can develop, depending on complications related to the disease. For example, a person with a fistula (abnormal passageway between various organs or tissues) in the rectal area may have pain and leaking discharge around the rectum.

Severe inflammation and obstruction of various parts of the gastrointestinal tract due to swelling and scar formation can cause other problems like bowel perforation, abdominal distension (swelling), severe pain, and fever. This can be life-threatening.

Also, because Crohn's disease is an autoimmune disease (see below), other parts of the body can become inflamed including the joints, eyes, mouth and skin. In addition, gallstones, and kidney stones may also develop as a result of Crohn's disease.

Moreover, children with the disease may experience decreased growth or delayed sexual development.

What Causes Crohn's Disease?

The cause of Crohn's disease is unknown. However, it is likely due to an abnormal response of the immune system. Food or bacteria in the intestines, or even the lining of the bowel may cause the uncontrolled inflammation associated with Crohn's disease.

Who Gets Crohn's Disease?

Crohn's disease is often inherited. About 20% of people with Crohn's disease may have a close relative with either Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. In addition, Jewish people of European descent (Ashkenazi) are at greater risk for the disease.

While Crohn's disease can affect people of all ages, it is primarily an illness of the young. Most people are diagnosed before age 30, but the disease can occur in people in their 60's, 70's or later in life.

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