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Crohn's disease - Kids & Teens

What is Crohn's disease?


Now that you have a good general understanding of IBD, you are ready to learn more about Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease is a condition that causes inflammation (soreness, swelling and pain) in the wall of the digestive system. Any part of the digestive system can be affected. In about 1/3 of people with Crohn's disease only the large intestine is affected, in about 1/3 only the small intestine is affected, and in about 1/3 both the small and large intestines are affected. (For an illustration and details on the different types of Crohn's disease, see the previous section How the digestive system works.


Crohn's disease can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other intestinal disorders and to another type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) called ulcerative colitis. Whereas ulcerative colitis affects the inside lining of the colon (large intestine) or rectum, Crohn's disease causes inflammation deeper within the intestinal wall and can occur in other parts of the digestive system, including the small intestine, mouth, esophagus and stomach.


  • What are the symptoms of Crohn's disease?                            back to top

    The most common symptoms of Crohn's disease are pain, usually in the lower right side of the abdomen, diarrhoea, needing to go to the toilet often, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, tiredness, mouth sores and painful 'cracks' in the skin of the anus (bottom) called anal fissures.

    Your symptoms can depend on which part of the digestive system is affected. For example, you may not have diarrhoea if only the small intestine is affected. Severe pain in the abdomen without any other symptoms may be caused by a small patch of Crohn's disease in the small intestine. A severe flare-up can make you feel very ill in general. If large parts of the gut are affected, you may not be able to absorb food well, and you may become deficient in vitamins and other nutrients. In children, there may be delayed growth as a result.

  • How is Crohn's disease diagnosed?                                                 back to top


    Different tests may be used to diagnose Crohn's disease. A physical exam and medical history are usually the first step. Blood tests may also be done to check for anaemia, which could suggest bleeding, or they may uncover a high white blood cell count, which is a sign of inflammation somewhere in the body.

    A stool sample can also reveal white blood cells, which might be an indication of inflammatory disease. A stool sample also allows the doctor to detect bleeding or infection caused by bacteria, a virus or parasites. Ruling out these causes can be useful in diagnosing Crohn's disease.

    If you have symptoms coming from the colon, your doctor may look inside the colon using a thin, flexible tube connected to a computer and TV monitor, called a sigmoidoscope or a longer flexible colonoscope. Usually the appearance of the inside lining of the colon will help the doctor to diagnose Crohn's disease. The camera is fitted with a device which the doctor can use to take a biopsy (small sample) of the lining of the gut, which is viewed under a microscope. The typical pattern of the cells may suggest Crohn's disease.

    Before the exam, you will need to drink a special preparation which will make you go to the toilet often. This is to clear the digestive system, so the camera can move about, and clearly see the walls of the bowel. Although the exam may be uncomfortable, it shouldn't be painful. Your doctor can discuss options for pain relief with you. If a biopsy is taken, usually this doesn't cause any discomfort.

    If, however, your symptoms are coming mainly from the upper part of the gut, then your doctor may suggest an endoscopy. A thin, flexible telescope is passed down the oesophagus into the stomach, allowing the doctor or nurse to look inside. If a special X-ray of the large intestine or small intestine is used, you will be given a specially prepared drink (barium meal) or an enema (barium enema) before the test. Barium coats the lining of the gut and shows up as white on X-ray films. The patterns on the films show the doctor which parts of the gut are affected by disease.


    Additional tests and scans may be needed, especially if there are complications. For example, CT and MRI scans can be used to obtain detailed pictures of the digestive system, to help to identify any problems.

    In about 10% of people with IBD, it is difficult to determine whether they have ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, due to similar or overlapping symptoms.


  • Can other parts of the body be affected also?                           back to top


    Other parts of the body may also be affected in some people with Crohn's disease, such as the joints, skin, eyes or liver. Some of these problems will improve when the Crohn's disease is treated, but others may require specific treatment on their own as well. Not everyone will have these problems, however.

    In severe disease, there may be inflammation and pain in the joints (arthritis); skin rashes; inflammation of the eye (uveitis); or liver inflammation. Doctors call these 'extraintestinal manifestations'.

    Here are a few examples of 'extraintestinal manifestations' of Crohn's disease:

    Peripheral arthropathy or arthritis - mainly soreness in the large and medium-size joints during a flare. The spine and lower back can also be affected. The arthritis may flare up even when the inflammatory disease is under control. Typical treatment may include analgesics (for pain relief).


    Erythema nodosum - the appearance of tender, red nodules, usually on the front area of the legs below the knees. This is more often seen in Crohn's disease than ulcerative colitis, and usually improves on its own in 4-6 weeks, or with treatment for the inflammatory disease. Treatment, when needed, may include corticosteroids or anti-inflammatory medicine.

    Episcleritis - inflammation of the white part of the eye and surrounding tissue, usually painless and often mistaken for pink eye. It usually improves on its own after 1-2 weeks. Treatment may include chilled artificial tears, corticosteroid eye drops or anti-inflammatory medicine.

    Uveitis - inflammation of the iris (coloured part of the eye), which can be very painful and can be associated with visual changes and sensitivity to light. If untreated, uveitis can progress to blindness, so it is important to treat this condition if it develops. Treatment may include eye drops (steroids or pupil dilators) to help reduce the inflammation and pain.


  • Who gets Crohn's disease?                                                               back to top


    About 1 million people in Europe have Crohn's disease. That is about 1 in 1,500 people. It can develop at any age, but most commonly starts between the ages of 15 and 40. It affects women slightly more often than men. The disease has become more common in recent years, although the cause is still unknown. Slightly more females than males are affected by Crohn's disease, and it is more common in smokers.


  • What causes Crohn's disease?                                                    back to top


    The cause of Crohn's disease is not yet known, although a combination of factors are believed to play a role, including viruses, bacteria, genetics and smoking. One theory is that a bacteria or virus may trigger the immune system to cause inflammation in parts of the digestive system in people who are genetically prone to develop the disease.


  • How does Crohn's disease progress?                                          back to top


    Crohn's disease is a chronic (ongoing) disease, with times when symptoms flare up (relapse) and times when there are few or no symptoms (remission). The severity of symptoms, and how often they occur, varies from one person to the next. A few people with Crohn's disease just have one or two flare-ups in their life, but for most of their life have no symptoms. A few people have frequent and/or severe flare-ups. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. The first flare-up is usually the worst. Usually, however, with treatment, symptoms can be managed well and it still possible to do the things you want to and live life to the full.


  • What are the possible complications of Crohn's disease?          back to top


    There are several possible complications of Crohn's disease. Although not everyone will have these problems, here are a few examples:


    Stricture - a narrowing of part of the gut due to scar tissue that has formed. This can cause difficulty in food passing through. If the bowel becomes blocked (an obstruction), this can cause pain and vomiting.


    Perforation - A small hole that forms in the wall of the gut. The contents of the gut can leak out and cause infection or an abscess inside the abdomen. This can be serious and life-threatening.


    Fistula - This is when the inflammation and infection causes a channel to form between two parts of the gut, a nearby organ or the skin, allowing the contents to leak into the other area.


    If you think you may be having any signs of a complication or problem, speak with your doctor or healthcare professional straight away. In general, these problems can be treated well if you get quick medical attention.


  • Will I need surgery?                                                                           back to top


    Most people with Crohn's disease can manage their illness with medicine. However, sometimes they may need surgery. Afterwards, they can usually expect a good quality of life.

    If surgery is needed, your doctor will discuss your options with you. Get as much information as possible by talking to your doctors, to nurses who work with people with Crohn's disease and to other people who have had surgery. Patient support groups can also direct you to other helpful resources and give you the opportunity to meet with other children and their parents who have had similar experiences in the past.

    For more information on treatment and surgery for Crohn's disease, please see
     Treatment plan for Crohn's disease.



  • What can I do to help manage my illness?                               back to top


    Your role in managing your illness is very important. Here are some of the most important things you can do to stay in control of Crohn's disease:

      • Be involved in the management of your own health every day

      • Know when and how to take care of your own health

      • Follow your management plan and take your medication

      • Ask questions if you are concerned, and seek help if a problem arises.

    In between doctor visits. It is important that you follow your treatment plan and know what to do should a problem arise. If you have any of these problems, contact your doctor as soon as possible:

        • Blood in your stool (poo)

        • Change in use of toilet (how often or how much) lasting for more than 10 days

        • Belly aches or pain

        • Lots of runny stools (diarrhoea) or bloody diarrhoea

        • Weight loss with no known reason

        • Fever lasting more than 3-4 days

        • Feeling very tired

        • Not feeling hungry or not wanting to eat

        • Stomach sickness (nausea) or throwing up (vomiting) for no known reason



Test your knowledge - parent-child activity                                           back to top


Here are a few questions about Crohn's disease to see how much you have learned so far. For each question, select either 'True' or 'False'. See how many you can get right.


1. Crohn's disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease.


(True or False?)                                                    For correct answer click here


2. Crohn's disease is contagious, meaning it can be spread from one person to another.


(True or False?)                                                    For correct answer click here


3. About 1 million people in Europe have Crohn's disease.


(True or False?)                                                    For correct answer click here

4. Crohn's disease only affects the large intestine.

(True or False?)                                                    For correct answer click here


5. Common symptoms of Crohn's disease include pain, diarrhoea, weight loss and tiredness.

(True or False?)                                                    For correct answer click here



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