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Crohn’s disease: an explainer

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel condition that affects 20,000 people in Ireland. If you’ve heard the term “Crohn’s” but aren’t sure what it entails, read on…

What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease impacts the bowel and intestines, causing parts of the digestive tract to become inflamed. This causes painful ulcers which can lead to a lot of discomfort.

Crohn’s is a lifelong condition that can start at any age. The symptoms can be constant or they can come and go but the main ones to watch out for are:

  • Diarrhoea – which may occur suddenly
  • Stomach aches and cramps – usually in the lower right part of the stomach
  • Blood or mucus in your stools
  • Tiredness

People suffering from Crohn’s disease may also find it difficult to put on weight or suffer from sudden, unexplained weight loss.

What causes Crohn’s disease?

It’s not known what the exact cause of Crohn’s disease is but there are several things that may play a role. For example, you’re more likely to suffer from Crohn’s disease if a close family member has it.

It would appear that an immune system disruption causes a special antibody known as tumour necrosis factor (TNF) to kill all bacteria (good or bad) in the digestive system. The resulting inflammation then leads to Crohn’s disease. People who smoke are also twice as likely to get Crohn’s disease as non-smokers.

There is a myth that certain types of diets – such as those heavy in “rich” oily or fatty foods – cause Crohn’s disease but there’s no evidence of this. In reality, people who suffer from Crohn’s may have to adjust their diet to prevent a flare-up of symptoms. This, however, depends entirely on the person.

Treatment

Usually medicines such as steroids are prescribed to help treat the symptoms and prevent flare-ups by reducing the inflammation in the gut.

As Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease, sometimes immunosuppressants are prescribed to reduce the activity of your immune system and relieve symptoms.

Surgery is often required when the symptoms of Crohn’s disease cannot be controlled with medication alone. While surgery will not cure Crohn’s disease, it can provide long periods of remission. During this “resection” surgery, the inflamed section of the bowel is removed and the healthy parts are then stitched back together.

Living with Crohn’s

Dealing with Crohn’s on a daily basis can take its toll on you both mentally and physically, particularly as there’s no known cure. 

It can cause complications, particularly with absorbing nutrients, so maintaining a balanced diet is vital. It’s important not to make any big changes to your diet without consulting your GP first.

The main thing to remember is that, with the right medication and some slight diet adjustments, you can still have a high quality of life.

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