Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term mainly used to describe two conditions: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are long-term conditions that involve inflammation of the gut. Ulcerative colitis only affects the colon (large intestine). Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive system, from the mouth to the anus.
People of any age can get IBD, but it’s usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40.
Symptoms of IBD include:
- pain, cramps or swelling in the tummy
- recurring or bloody diarrhoea
- weight loss
- extreme tiredness
Not everyone has all of these symptoms, and some people may have additional symptoms, including fever, vomiting and anaemia.
Joint pain (arthritis), painful red eyes (iritis), painful red skin nodules (erythema nodosum) and jaundice (primary sclerosing cholangitis) are less commonly associated with IBD.
The symptoms of IBD can come and go. There may be times when the symptoms are severe (flare-ups), followed by long periods when there are few or no symptoms at all (remission).
There’s currently no cure for ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
If you have mild ulcerative colitis, you may need minimal or no treatment and remain well for prolonged periods of time.
Treatment aims to relieve the symptoms and prevent them returning, and includes specific diets, lifestyle changes, medicines and surgery.
Medicines used to treat ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease include:
- aminosalicylates or mesalazines – which can be given in a variety of ways
- immunosuppressants – such as steroids or azathioprine to reduce the activity of the immune system
- biologics – specific antibody-based treatments given by injection that target a specific part of the immune system
It’s estimated 1 in 5 people with ulcerative colitis have severe symptoms that don’t improve with medication. In these cases, surgery may be necessary to remove an inflamed section of large bowel (colon).
Around 60-75% of people with Crohn’s disease will need surgery to repair damage to their digestive system and treat complications of Crohn’s disease.
People with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are also at increased risk of getting bowel cancer. Your doctor will recommend regular bowel check-ups (colonoscopies) to reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Causes of IBD
It’s unclear what causes IBD, but a combination of factors is thought to play a part. These include:
- genetics – you’re more likely to develop IBD if you have a close relative with the condition
- a problem with the immune system
- People who smoke are twice as likely to get Crohn’s disease than non-smokers
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBD isn’t the same as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is a common condition that causes symptoms such as:
- stomach pain