Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or swelling in the intestines, that may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract (GI), but most commonly affects the end of the small bowel (ileum) and the beginning of the large bowel (colon).
Who is Affected by Crohn’s Disease?
It is estimated that Crohn’s disease affects up to 700,000 people in the United States. Men and women appear to be equally affected, and diagnosis typically occurs in adolescents between the ages of 15 and 35. Crohn’s tends to run in families, so the risk of disease is greater in individuals with a first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling). In addition, the disease is more common among Caucasians of eastern European backgrounds, including people of Jewish heritage.
What Causes Crohn’s Disease?
The exact cause of Crohn’s disease remains uncertain. The most popular theory is that the body mistakenly assumes harmless digestive bacteria, food and other substances are foreign, harmful invaders. The immune system mounts a response in which white blood cells migrate to the lining of the intestines to attack the foreign bodies, producing inflammation. In an individual with Crohn’s, the immune response results in chronic inflammation that causes ulceration, thickening of the intestinal wall, and bowel injury. It remains uncertain whether the inflammation seen in Crohn’s is a cause or result of the disease. Development of Crohn’s may also be due to hereditary, genetic and/or environmental factors.
Crohn’s Disease Symptoms
Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract. Symptoms of Crohn’s range from mild to severe and can develop gradually or have a more sudden onset. Crohn’s is a chronic disease, which means that patients will likely experience periods when the disease flares up and causes symptoms, followed by periods of remission when patients may not notice any symptoms. During active Crohn’s, symptoms may include:
- Persistent diarrhea
- Cramping and abdominal pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Reduced appetite and weight loss
In more severe cases of Crohn’s, the disease may affect areas outside of the GI tract, including: