Back to Learn

What Is Crohn’s Disease and How Do I Know If I Have It?

Image of What Is Crohn’s Disease and How Do I Know If I Have It?
Image of What Is Crohn’s Disease and How Do I Know If I Have It?

When you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s tough to know what’s causing them. That’s because many digestive conditions share common symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and irregular (or uncomfortable) bathroom visits.

If you think your symptoms might be caused by Crohn’s disease, you’re in the right place. Read on to learn the basics about this chronic condition.

What is Crohn’s disease?

Ever heard of inflammatory bowel disease? If you have, then you actually already know a little bit about Crohn’s.

That’s because Crohn’s disease is actually just a type of IBD. (The other main type is ulcerative colitis.) All types of inflammatory bowel disease damage your digestive tract—the path food travels through your body—with inflammation. Experts think that could be because your immune system is mistakenly attacking your own body.

What makes Crohn’s disease different is that the damage it causes is unpredictable: Unlike ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s can spread beyond the colon and rectum (although it usually targets the small intestine), leaving behind a patchy pattern of damaged and healthy tissue. Crohn’s can also affect multiple layers of the lining of the intestines and even cause fistulas, which are tunnels of tissue that connect parts of your body that actually shouldn’t be connected.

What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease?

We’re willing to bet you can’t get a look at the inside of your intestines anytime you want, so how do you know if you might have Crohn’s disease?

Here are the key symptoms to look out for:

  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint pain or arthritis
  • Kidney stones
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Weight loss

As we mentioned earlier, these symptoms look a lot like the hallmarks of other digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. That’s one reason why it’s so important to talk to your doctor before jumping to any conclusions.

The other reason is that Crohn’s disease can cause pretty serious complications if left untreated, like anal fissures (“fissures” is a fancy way of saying rips or tears), fistulas (those out-of-place tunnels of tissue we mentioned earlier), and even colon cancer.

How is Crohn’s disease diagnosed?

If you do decide to head to the doctor to find out if you have Crohn’s, you should know that the only tests that can tell you for sure if you have it are a colonoscopy—a procedure in which a tiny camera gets inserted into your rectum—or a biopsy, which is when your doctor cuts a small tissue sample from your colon and examines it. Those procedures are often done at the same time.

Your doctor might also want to use a few tests to rule out other conditions, such as a blood or stool test, and discuss your symptoms with you to make sure they’re on track to the right diagnosis.

Who is at risk for Crohn’s disease?

Get ready for some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that doctors don’t actually know what causes Crohn’s disease yet, although many suspect it could have something to do with the immune system malfunctioning. The good news is that people who tend to get the disease share some common factors, so there are ways to know if you’re at risk.

Here are some risk factors that might make you more likely to develop Crohn’s:

  • Age: Most people who have Crohn’s start seeing symptoms in their teens or twenties, but you can technically develop it at any age.
  • Ethnicity: For unknown reasons, Eastern European and Jewish people are most likely to have Crohn’s.
  • Family history: If you’re related to someone with Crohn’s, you’re more likely to develop it yourself. If both of your parents have it, you have a 35% chance of getting it too.
  • Geography: You’re more likely to have Crohn’s if you live in an urban area than a rural one.
  • Smoking: Looking for a sign you should quit smoking? Here it is—using tobacco doubles your risk of Crohn’s, and makes it more likely that you’ll need surgery to treat it.

How is Crohn’s disease treated?

Ready for some more bad news? Unfortunately, there’s no cure for Crohn’s disease. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use treatments to relieve your symptoms and prevent further damage to your digestive tract.

Here are the main treatments for Crohn’s disease:

  • Medications: There’s no one medication that works for everyone with Crohn’s disease, but there are multiple options for you to try. These include antibiotics to fight harmful bacteria in your immune system, steroids to reduce inflammation, and medications that suppress your immune system like biologics.
  • Surgery: In severe cases, a surgeon may need to remove damaged portions of your digestive tract to prevent or treat complications like colon cancer. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, about half of people with Crohn’s disease need surgical treatment at some point in their lives.
  • Lifestyle changes: No magic diet will cure Crohn’s, but eating well can help you manage your symptoms. For many people, that means drinking more water, taking nutritional supplements as needed, and avoiding carbonated drinks, fatty and fried foods, and high-fiber foods like popcorn and nuts. Exercising regularly and quitting smoking can also help.

What is living with Crohn’s disease like?

When you think about living with a chronic condition like Crohn’s, you might picture yourself bogged down by tons of medications, inconvenient doctor visits, and unwelcome lifestyle changes. But it’s important to keep in mind that with the right treatment plan, you can keep your symptoms under control or even make them go away entirely for long periods of time—doctors call that going “into remission.” That said, Crohn’s can still damage your body when it’s in remission, so don’t slack off on your regular check-ups when you’re feeling better.

If pregnancy is a part of your future plans, be sure to have a chat with your doctor before you start trying. You can have a healthy baby when you have Crohn’s disease, but you’re going to have to be extra vigilant to avoid flare-ups during pregnancy.

You can admit it: Thinking you might have a chronic condition can be scary. Living with Crohn’s disease can mean carefully crafting a treatment plan, closely tracking your diet, and frequently visiting your doctor, which can all be a little (or a lot) stressful—not to mention dealing with the actual symptoms.

But here’s the silver lining—you’re not alone in dealing with all that. Your doctor, your friends, your family, your cat, and whoever else makes up your support system are all along for the ride with you. And when worse comes to worst, you can always count on other people who have Crohn’s to get what you’re going through. Living with a chronic condition can feel isolating, but the truth is you’re not alone.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.