If your daily life consists of abdominal pain, frequent trips to the bathroom, nausea and extreme fatigue, it may be time to see your doctor. These symptoms may indicate an inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, the most serious of which is inflammatory bowel disease.
These symptoms also occur with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but unlike IBD, IBS does not cause damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
“Inflammatory bowel disease is a chronic disease that causes inflammation and breakdown in the lining of the GI tract,” says Dr. Michael Lajin, a board-certified gastroenterologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “There are two types of IBD: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.”
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have similar symptoms: persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stools, weight loss, low energy and fever. Doctors perform different tests — including certain imaging studies, endoscopy or colonoscopy, blood tests and stool samples — to diagnose these conditions.
While symptoms may present the same, there are distinctive differences between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the upper and lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract and most often affects the terminal ileum (the end of the small intestine just before the colon). It’s typically characterized by patches of damaged areas next to areas of healthy tissue.
Ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon and rectum. Unlike Crohn’s disease, the damaged areas of the GI tract are continuous and the inflammation is only present in the innermost layer of the colon’s lining.
Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are considered autoimmune diseases. Such diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly targets the bowel — causing inflammation — instead of attacking foreign organisms to protect the body.
According to Dr. Lajin, “The precise trigger prompting the immune system to attack the bowel is unknown but it is likely something that comes from the environment.”
Studies have found that a person’s lifestyle can increase the risk of IBD. Individuals who smoke and eat a high-fat diet (especially animal fat), processed foods and refined sugars have a higher risk of IBD. In addition, a family history of IBD increases a person’s risk.
Treatment for IBD varies and depends on the severity of the disease. It can include topical or oral medications to reduce inflammation or suppress the immune system. In severe cases, hospitalization, intravenous medication, bowel rest or surgery may be required.
IBD is a chronic disease, and patients may experience disease flare-ups followed by no symptoms at all. IBD patients benefit from regular visits with their doctors, even in the absence of symptoms, in order to monitor certain lab tests and possible medication side effects, and to keep up to date on certain vaccinations. Talk to your doctor if you experience significant digestive issues more than three times a month.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Lajin about inflammatory bowel disease for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.