Crohn’s Disease FAQs

About 700,000 Americans are affected by Crohn’s disease ― a long-term condition causing chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. People with Crohn’s disease can have severe abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea and other symptoms.

At Mercy, our gastroenterologists are experts at helping people with Crohn’s disease manage the condition and minimize its impact on daily life.

What's Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the digestive tract. It can affect any part of the GI tract, but it’s most commonly found in the lower part of the small intestine or colon. Symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, diarrhea (sometimes 10-20 times per day), weight loss, mouth sores, bowel blockages and anal fissures. Some people with Crohn’s disease experience ongoing severe illness, while others have milder symptoms. The disease can lead to other complications, such as ulcers and problems absorbing nutrients. And Crohn’s can also cause joint pain and skin problems.

What causes Crohn’s disease?

While the exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, experts believe several factors contribute to its development. They include:

  • Family history – Up to 20% of people with Crohn’s disease have a family member with the condition. And people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have an increased risk for the disease.
  • Overactive immune system – Some experts believe Crohn’s disease begins as an immune system response to viruses, bacteria or other outside invaders. But the immune system never shuts off, causing chronic inflammation.
  • Age – Most people are diagnosed with Crohn’s disease before age 30, but the disease can occur later in life.
  • Smoking – People who smoke are more likely to develop Crohn’s disease and experience more severe illness.
  • Environment – Crohn’s disease is more prevalent in developed countries, urban areas and northern climates.

Stress, poor diet and overuse of drugs like ibuprofen don’t cause Crohn’s disease, but they can make the symptoms worse.

Is Crohn’s disease fatal?

Crohn’s disease can be successfully managed and isn’t usually a life-threatening condition. But if left untreated, the disease can cause serious health complications over time. Intestinal blockages, ulcers, internal bleeding, abscesses, colon cancer and other serious health problems can result without proper treatment for Crohn’s disease.

How do you test for Crohn’s disease?

In addition to a physical exam and review of your medical history, several tests are available to help Mercy gastroenterologists diagnose Crohn’s disease. They include:

  • Colonoscopy to examine the colon (the lower portion of your large intestine)
  • Endoscopy to check the GI tract from the mouth to the first section of the small intestine
  • Biopsy to collect a small piece of tissue from the inside of the intestine for further testing
  • Chromoendoscopy to detect precancerous tissue or lesions using dye contrast
  • Small intestine imaging to examine areas that can’t be easily seen by endoscopy or colonoscopy

What's the Crohn’s disease diet?

Foods that trigger GI symptoms in people with Crohn’s disease (called trigger foods) can vary. Identifying and avoiding trigger foods can reduce Crohn’s symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea. Trigger foods for many people with Crohn’s disease include:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Dairy products, including butter substitutes
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Coffee and tea
  • Chocolate
  • Fried and fatty foods
  • High-fiber foods
  • Raw fruits and vegetables
  • Red meat and pork
  • Spicy foods

What are the early signs of Crohn’s disease?

Early signs of Crohn’s disease include persistent abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, unexplained weight loss and blood in the stool. If you’re experiencing these symptoms – especially if you’ve got a family history of Crohn’s or other inflammatory bowel diseases – see your Mercy doctor right away.

Can you prevent Crohn’s disease?

While it’s not possible to prevent Crohn’s disease (especially if you have a family history), you can manage the condition and lead an active life. Talk with a Mercy gastroenterologist about treatment options and ways to live better with Crohn’s.

What's the difference between Crohn’s disease & ulcerative colitis?

Both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases, but they differ in location, symptoms and continuity. Ulcerative colitis is located only in the large intestine, while Crohn’s disease can be found anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Symptoms like mouth sores and anal fissures are seen with Crohn’s disease but not usually in ulcerative colitis. And continuous inflammation appears with ulcerative colitis, while Crohn’s inflammation shows gaps of healthy tissue.

How do you manage Crohn’s disease?

A Mercy gastroenterologist can help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Many effective medications are available to relieve symptoms, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, antibiotics and others. You may need to follow a special diet to reduce the risk of intestinal blockages. And your gastroenterologist may recommend nutrition therapy, either by injection (parenteral nutrition) or a feeding tube (enteral nutrition), to make sure your body gets enough nutrients.

If medication, nutrition therapy and diet aren’t working, your Mercy gastroenterologist may recommend surgery. Nearly half of people with Crohn’s undergo surgery, which may be needed to repair damaged areas of the GI tract or drain abscesses. Medication following surgery can reduce the risk of recurrence.

Find a Gastroenterologist

Mercy has Crohn’s Disease specialists across most our communities.

Find a gastroenterologist near you.