13 Crohn’s Disease Symptoms, From Diarrhea to Beyond
Crohn’s disease symptoms can be more than just a little uncomfortable. In addition to managing pain, living with the chronic condition can make you feel really anxious about going somewhere new—or even going anywhere at all—if you don’t know what the bathroom situation will be like.
If you go undiagnosed or without necessary treatment, Crohn’s disease can cause lasting damage to your digestive tract, leading to even more pain and discomfort in the long run. For those reasons and more (which we’ll dig into below), it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of Crohn’s disease and take action if you’re experiencing them, even though they can be tough to talk about.
But rest assured you’re not alone: An estimated half a million people in the U.S. have Crohn’s disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). This 2013 estimate is the latest available, so the exact figure is likely much higher than this.
Not sure what your stomach woes could be pointing to? Read on to learn about the most common Crohn’s disease symptoms and the steps you can take if something similar is happening to you.
What is Crohn’s disease, exactly?
Crohn’s disease is one form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes other conditions such as ulcerative colitis, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). IBD happens when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your digestive tract and causes chronic inflammation, setting off a slew of symptoms, as well as possible complications if the disease isn’t treated.
Researchers believe this autoimmune reaction occurs when your immune system has an abnormal response to bacteria in your digestive tract, but why this happens isn’t entirely understood. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause visible damage to the digestive tract, which can be seen on scans, Benjamin Lebwohl, M.D., gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, tells SELF.
Crohn’s in particular causes inflammation anywhere in your digestive tract (which begins at the mouth and ends at the anus). However, it most commonly affects the small intestine (the longest portion of your GI tract) and the large intestine (which includes your colon, rectum, and anus).
It’s not clear why some people get Crohn’s disease and others don’t, but experts suspect genetics might be involved since the condition can run in families, according to the NLM. In fact, scientists have found more than 100 genes that are associated with having IBD, but more research is needed to understand the link1.
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What are the most common Crohn’s disease symptoms?
Crohn’s disease can manifest in different ways depending on the severity of your condition and where the inflammation has taken hold, so not everyone has the exact same experience. Ahead, read about the most common Crohn’s symptoms, according to the NIDDK and Mayo Clinic.
We’re talking persistent, unexpected, and urgent diarrhea that doesn’t respond well to over-the-counter medications. Though the timeline varies, diarrhea can last anywhere from a few days to a few months during Crohn’s disease flare-ups, Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center and director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, California.
Diarrhea happens because of the gut inflammation inherent to Crohn’s, Dr. Farhadi says. Even though Crohn’s can impact any part of your digestive system, it typically affects the last part of the small intestine (where most of the digestive process happens) and the colon (the longest part of the large intestine, which moves stool so it can exit your body), according to the Mayo Clinic. It makes perfect, painful sense that when these parts of your digestive tract are irritated, they can’t do their jobs properly—and you can get some pretty severe diarrhea as a result. What’s more, Crohn’s-induced inflammation can also cause the affected parts of your digestive tract to become hyperactive and spasm too much, which can force food to move through your system far too quickly, resulting in those really loose, watery stools.
2. Bloody stool
No one likes looking into the toilet bowl and seeing blood but, unfortunately, this can be a common Crohn’s disease symptom. The illness can cause open sores (ulcers) anywhere in your digestive tract. Unfortunately, those ulcers can bleed, causing bloody poop, Dr. Farhadi says. Noticing blood in your poop is always something to bring up to your doctor, even though it’s not always a sign of something as serious as Crohn’s disease.
3. Severe abdominal pain and cramping
Inflammation can make your intestines go way overboard with cramping, and that can contribute to Crohn’s disease pain. Also, people with Crohn’s disease may have scarring and narrowing of their intestinal walls (known as intestinal strictures). “This causes pain and bloating because the stool has a hard time getting through,” Jessica Philpott, M.D., Ph.D., a gastroenterologist who specializes in treating inflammatory bowel disease at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. For some people, Crohn’s disease pain can make it hard to even get out of bed.
4. Mouth sores
You may not usually think of your mouth as being part of your digestive system, but it is. Given that it’s part of your bigger digestive operation, your mouth can develop sores just like other parts of your system that Crohn’s disease can compromise, Dr. Farhadi says. In some cases, people develop mouth sores before other Crohn’s symptoms2.
Chronic diarrhea can cause you to lose more liquids and electrolytes than you take in, leading to an increased risk of dehydration, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Chronic dehydration can become serious because your heart (and other vital organs) need water to function. Some common signs of dehydration include feeling really thirsty, having a dry mouth, or getting a headache. Some less obvious signs include feeling fatigued, moody, or nauseous. If you develop additional symptoms, such as a fever, muscle twitching, or a rapid heart rate, then you may be severely dehydrated and need urgent medical care.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re burning up 24/7, but your temperature might spike when your digestive tract is under siege during a Crohn’s disease flare-up. Fever is one sign that your body’s immune system has activated in response to a threat, per the NLM, and this can happen because of inflammation tied to Crohn’s disease, Dr. Farhadi says.
It’s pretty much a given that when you’re dealing with Crohn’s disease symptoms like diarrhea and a fever, it’s hard to feel energetic. All that inflammation and your body’s resulting immune response can contribute to low energy and fatigue, according to Dr. Farhadi.