1. Home
  2. Digestive Health
  3. Crohn's Disease  
Main content

Understanding Crohn’s Disease

    • Crohn’s disease is an immune-based inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract and one of a group of conditions called inflammatory bowel diseases. This chronic condition can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract but is most often found in the small intestine and colon.

      The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America estimates that approximately 700,000 Americans may be living with the disease. Anyone can get Crohn’s disease, and it can start at any time in a person’s life. However, it occurs most frequently in people between the ages of either 15 and 30 and 60 and 80.

      Although no one is sure what causes Crohn’s disease, you may be more likely to have it if a family member also has the condition or other immune diseases. Environmental factors may also contribute. Experts believe the disease is triggered when a person’s immune system begins to mistake healthy bacteria in the intestine, or some other environmental agent, as harmful and sets off an immune response.

      Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease

      If you have Crohn’s disease, inflammation from the abnormal immune response can cause symptoms such as stomach pain, persistent diarrhea and rectal bleeding. Since Crohn’s disease is a chronic disorder, symptoms may flare up at various times during your life. Sometimes, symptoms may be absent completely.

      Diagnosing Crohn’s Disease

      Crohn’s disease can be difficult to diagnose as many of this disorder’s symptoms overlap with those of other inflammatory bowel diseases. Your doctor will need to perform tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.

      First, your doctor may order laboratory tests to rule out that your symptoms are being caused by an infection. You may then need a colonoscopy and a biopsy of the colon to help confirm the diagnosis. In addition, your doctor may also ask you to have a CT scan to view particular areas of your intestine more clearly.

      Treatment Options for Crohn's

      Crohn’s disease treatments include a combination of medications, tailored to your individual symptoms, to reduce inflammation and uncomfortable symptoms.

      • Anti-inflammatory medications (aminosalicylates such as mesalamine) work on the inside of the intestine to decrease inflammation and are effective for people with mild to moderate symptoms.
      • Steroids, such as prednisone, are used to reduce and control more severe inflammatory symptoms or abrupt flares of the disease. However, they have side effects and should only be used for short periods of time.
      • Immunomodulators (such as azathiporine and methotrexate) also suppress the immune system to stop chronic inflammation. This type of medication is used if steroid medication has not been effective or to eliminate the need for steroids and the accompanying side effects.
      • Antibiotics are sometimes also used if the inflammation from Crohn’s disease causes an infection such as an abscess.

      Crohn’s disease can lead to serious complications such as abscesses, obstructions in the intestine and the formation of scar tissue. Surgery may then be required to remove the affected areas of the intestine.

      Staying Healthy with Crohn’s Disease

      If you have Crohn’s disease, make sure you are under the care of a gastroenterologist who specializes in the disease. Learn to recognize the symptoms and get treatment promptly before they worsen. Take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor to avoid disease flare-ups.

      Although there is no special diet for people with Crohn’s disease, the disorder can reduce your appetite and increase nutritional loss due to frequent diarrhea. Eat a healthy, balanced diet to ensure you get the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need to stay healthy. (The Mediterranean Diet Guide is a good place to start. You may also want to review our best and worst foods for IBS.)

      Smoking is also more likely to aggravate Crohn’s disease. So if you do smoke, quit. (See 7 ways to make a new habit stick for ideas to break that smoking habit for good.)

      When Crohn’s disease is managed well, it can have minimal to no impact on your daily activities, free you to lead a full life.

      Dr. Robert Osterhoff is a board-certified gastroenterologist who sees patients at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Burlingame Center.

      Sutter Health Gastroenterologists

      Need to see a doctor? Find a Sutter Health gastroenterologist in your area.

      Have a Question About Digestive Issues?

      Submit your confidential questions to our Sutter Health experts.