Crohn’s disease is a condition that causes inflammation of the digestive system, affecting any area from the mouth to the anus. It most commonly affects the small intestine, at the point where it meets the colon, known as the ileum. It can affect the entire thickness of the bowel wall.
The job of the digestive system is to break down the food we eat. The small intestine receives partly digested food from the stomach and breaks it down further so that nutrients can be absorbed into the blood stream. The waste and undigested food then passes into the colon, which absorbs water, and the leftover waste forms solid faeces. In patients with Crohn’s disease, inflammation in the small intestine can lead to redness, ulcerations and swelling. This affects the body’s ability to digest food properly, absorb the nutrients and eliminate waste in a healthy way. The inflammation can affect just a small patch of the small intestine or can cover a large area.
Types of Crohn’s disease
There are different types of Crohn’s disease and they each have a different name, usually in relation to the different part of the gut that is most affected.
Terminal ileal and ileocecal
Affecting the ileum, the last part of the small intestine. This is one of the most common forms of Crohn’s. Symptoms usually include pain in the lower right side of the abdomen, diarrhoea, and weight loss.
Affects the colon and is sometimes called Crohn’s colitis. Symptoms usually include diarrhoea with blood and mucus, and frequent bowel movements.
Affecting the upper gut (the oesophagus and stomach) and symptoms include an indigestion-like pain, nausea, appetite loss and weight loss. This is a less common condition.
Affects the area around the anus and symptoms involve the development of skin tags, haemorrhoids (piles), abscesses and fistulas.
Affects the mouth but is a rare condition. It causes swollen lips and mouth fissures & ulcers.
Living with Crohn’s disease
Crohn’s disease affects each patient differently. The impact it may have on a patient’s life will depend on the severity of their disease and whether they are in a period of remission, when the disease is less active and easier to manage, or in an active phase (known as a flare-up), when effects can be more severe. Most people follow patterns of remission and infrequent periods of active disease. In remission, symptoms are controlled by medication, so patients are able to live their lives in a normal way but experience mild and infrequent diarrhoea and pain. During flare ups when medication isn’t working, patients’ lifestyles have to be adapted.
Living with Crohn’s disease can have a significant emotional impact on your life. Having an understanding of the disease and the support of those close to you can help you manage the condition. You are likely to see your doctor or IBD team frequently so building a good relationship with them is another vital support. See ‘Talking to your doctor’ for further information on ways to build your support network.