Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Overview

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used for a group of intestinal disorders that cause prolonged inflammation of the digestive tract. The digestive tract includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Inflammation along the digestive tract disrupts the body’s normal process of breaking down food and extracting the nutrients. The inflammation and other symptoms of IBD can be painful and debilitating, and in some cases, may even be life-threatening.

IBD should not be confused with IBS – irritable bowel syndrome. While the conditions sound similar, they are classified differently and involve different treatments. IBS is classified as a syndrome – not a disease. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder that does not produce destructive inflammation, nor does treatment usually involve surgery or drugs such as immunotherapy. IBS can, however, cause discomfort and distress.  

What are the types of IBD?

Crohn’s disease – Crohn’s primarily affects the small bowel and the beginning of the colon. The condition is similar to ulcerative colitis, but Crohn’s can affect any part of the GI tract, whereas UC primary affects the large intestine.  

Ulcerative colitis – Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic disease of the large intestine (colon). Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation in the lining of the colon where tiny ulcerations develop that produce pus and mucous. Unlike Crohn’s disease, UC is limited to the large intestine.

What causes IBD?

The exact cause of inflammatory bowel disease is unknown, but researchers believe genetics and the immune system may play a role in the development of IBD. Heredity is believed to be a factor, as many people with IBD have siblings or a parent with the disease. The condition often presents itself while the body is fighting off an intestinal "bug" or immediately after such an illness. The immune system turns its attack on the cells in the digestive track. This response can cause chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.  

Who develops IBD?

Risk factors for developing IBD include:

  • Smoking - Ulcerative colitis is more common among ex-smokers and non-smokers; Crohn's disease is more common among smokers
  • Ethnicity (Caucasians and Ashkenazi Jews have a higher risk)
  • Age (IBD usually starts before the age of 35)
  • Family history
  • Geographical region (people in urban areas and industrialized countries have a higher risk)
  • Gender (Ulcerative colitis is more common among men, Crohn’s Disease is more common among women)

What are the symptoms of IBD?

  • Severe diarrhea, caused by affected parts of the bowel that can’t reabsorb water
  • Bloody stools
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Weight loss
  • Low-grade fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Associated symptoms and conditions include:

  • Canker sores
  • Eye inflammation
  • Skin disorders
  • Arthritis

What are the possible complications and risks of IBD?

  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia is common and often overlooked
  • Colon cancer
  • Intestinal ruptures
  • Bowel obstruction