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What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

diagram of the gastrointestinal tract

What is IBD?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a broad term that describes conditions with chronic or recurring immune response and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. The two most common inflammatory bowel diseases are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Inflammation affects the entire digestive tract in Crohn’s disease and only the large intestine in ulcerative colitis. Both illnesses are characterized by an abnormal response to the body’s immune system.

How does IBD affect health?

In people with IBD the immune system mistakes food, bacteria, and other materials in the intestine for foreign substances and it attacks the cells of the intestines. In the process, the body sends white blood cells into the lining of the intestines where they produce chronic inflammation. IBD is a condition that gets worse over time and causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms that can affect quality of life.

Inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease should not be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that affects the colon’s muscle contractions. Intestinal inflammation is not a symptom of IBS which is a much less serious disease than ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

About Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a condition of chronic inflammation potentially involving any location of the gastrointestinal tract, but it often affects the end of the small bowel and the beginning of the large bowel. In Crohn's disease, all layers of the intestine may be involved and there can be normal healthy bowel between patches of diseased bowel.

Symptoms include

  • Persistent diarrhea (loose, watery, or frequent bowel movements).
  • Cramping abdominal pain.
  • Fever.
  • Rectal bleeding (at times).

If you or someone you know has questions about IBD, please talk with your health care provider.

Loss of appetite and weight loss also may occur. However, Crohn’s disease can also affect the joints, eyes, skin, and liver. Fatigue is another common complaint.

The most common complication of Crohn’s disease is blockage of the intestine due to swelling and scar tissue. Symptoms of blockage include cramping pain, vomiting, and bloating. Another complication is sores or ulcers within the intestinal tract. Sometimes these deep ulcers turn into tracts—called fistulas. Crohn’s patients may also have an increased risk of colon cancer as well.

About Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that occurs in the top layers of the colon.

Symptoms include

  • Progressive loosening of the stool. The stool is generally bloody and may include cramping abdominal pain and severe urgency to have a bowel movement. The diarrhea may begin slowly or quite suddenly.
  • Loss of appetite followed by weight loss are common
  • Fatigue.

The majority of patients with Crohn's disease will require surgery at some point during their lives. Surgery becomes necessary in Crohn's disease when medications can no longer control the symptoms.

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Anemia may also occur in cases of severe bleeding. In addition, there may be skin lesions, joint pain, eye inflammation, and liver disorders.

Almost half of all patients with ulcerative colitis have mild symptoms. However, others may suffer from severe abdominal cramping, bloody diarrhea, nausea, and fever. The symptoms of ulcerative colitis come and go, with fairly long periods in between flare-ups.

Complications can include bleeding from deep ulcerations, rupture of the bowel, or failure to respond to the usual medical treatments. Another complication is severe abdominal bloating. Patients with ulcerative colitis are at increased risk of colon cancer.
In over one-fourth of patients with ulcerative colitis, medical therapy is not completely successful and surgery may be considered to remove the colon (known as a colectomy). Ulcerative colitis is "cured" once the colon is removed.

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