Know inflammatory bowel disease symptoms to get the right treatment and feel better faster
By Adam B. Gorelick, MD, Gastroenterology, Nuvance Health
Your experience in the bathroom can say a lot about what your body is trying to tell you. You have probably experienced changes in your bowel movements at one point or another throughout your life. Bowel movements play an important part in your overall gut health and are a major indicator of how your body responds to the foods you eat.
In most cases, occasional diarrhea is normal, usually connected to a bacterial infection in your intestines and should clear up in a few days. But when should you be concerned about sudden changes in your bowel movements, and what should you do if you suspect inflammatory bowel disease or (IBD)?
What is inflammatory bowel disease or IBD?
Inflammatory bowel disease is a common term used to describe two underlying gastrointestinal conditions; ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. These symptoms present differently depending on the severity of inflammation and which of the two conditions you may have.
Ulcerative colitis is the inflammation and development of sores along your large intestine. Crohn’s disease is inflammation of your digestive tract and can involve anywhere from your mouth to your anus. It commonly involves the end of your small intestine called the ileum.
What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis can develop at any age, but most commonly occurs in people between 15 and 30, and less frequently between 50 and 70. Ulcerative colitis happens when the immune system attacks the digestive tract, but its exact cause is unknown. Ulcerative colitis occurs only in your large intestine when ulcers form continuously on the inner walls of your intestine beginning in the rectum and moving up through your colon.
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease where symptoms become active and then inactive, meaning, the symptoms could go away for months or even years, but then suddenly reappear out of nowhere. Although there is no cure for ulcerative colitis, it can be managed with medicine, lifestyle changes and sometimes surgery.
Related content: Understand ulcerative colitis and gain control of your gut
What is Crohn’s disease?
Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that develops over time and often comes with abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss due to malnutrition. It can be both painful and debilitating, and it can lead to some life-threatening complications.
Crohn’s disease occurs when there is inflammation present inside of your small intestines. However, Crohn’s can travel throughout your entire digestive tract. The cause of Crohn’s is not completely understood, although new research finds that the disease may have something to do with your heredity (inherited by your family) and your immune system. While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, it can be managed and put into remission through therapies and medication.
Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms
Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms vary depending on the severity of inflation inside of your gastrointestinal tract, and whether you are experiencing ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Common IBD symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloody stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Skin rashes
- Mouth sores
- Joint Pain
See a Nuvance Health gastroenterologist if you experience repeated changes in your bowel movements or are experiencing inflammatory bowel disease symptoms.
Causes of inflammatory bowel disease
The exact cause of IBD is unknown, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, IBD is the result of a weakened immune system.
Possible causes for immune weakness have been linked to:
- Environmental triggers such as a virus or bacteria that cause inflammation in the digestive tract.
- Family genetics or if you have a family history of IBD can put you at a greater risk of developing an improper immune response.
How is inflammatory bowel disease diagnosed?
There are several tests designed to diagnose IBD. Your doctor will assess how severe your IBD is and what procedures may be necessary to further evaluate your condition. Your doctor will likely test your blood and stool first.
If your doctor suspects ulcerative colitis, they will recommend a procedure called a colonoscopy. A long thin tube with a camera at the tip is used to check for inflammation inside the colon.
Since Crohn’s disease can involve any portion of the GI tract from mouth to your anus, it can be diagnosed in the following ways:
- An endoscopy. Your doctor will place a small tube with a camera attached at the end down the throat to examine the inside of the stomach and upper digestive tract.
- A diagnostic colonoscopy can be used if the disease involves the large intestine at the lower end of the GI tract.
- A special CT scan or MRI scan called an enterography can be used if your doctor suspects the disease is occurring in the small bowel.
- A capsule endoscopy. For this test, you swallow a capsule that has a camera in it. The camera takes thousands of pictures as it travels through your digestive system. The pictures are sent to a recorder that you wear on your belt. The images eventually are downloaded to a computer and interpreted by a gastroenterologist. The camera exits your body in your stool.
Learn more about colonoscopies in this video: See what it’s like to get a colonoscopy screening
What are the treatments for inflammatory bowel disease?
There are several types of medications to treat IBD such as 5-ASA agents, immunomodulatory drugs, corticosteroids, and biologics.
5-ASA agents for IBD
5-ASA agents are also known as mesalamine. They are anti-inflammatory and work in the lining of the colon. They come in a variety of oral and rectal forms.
Immunomodulatory treatment for IBD
Immunomodulatory medicines work by modifying the activity of your immune system. The medicine is used to treat IBD by decreasing the inflammatory response of your body.
Corticosteroids for IBD
Corticosteroids are medicines that copy the effects of certain hormones. These hormones do important jobs in your body, like controlling inflammation, fighting off sickness, managing how you use energy and balancing salt and water. People often take corticosteroids to treat inflammation caused by IBD. These medicines work by calming down your immune system’s response to inflammation. These agents also come in oral and rectal forms.
Biologic agents for IBD
Current therapy for IBD includes newer biological agents. These agents target different triggers of inflammation involving the colon. The choice of these agents depends on a variety of individual factors and are part of a treatment plan between you and your doctor.
Lifestyle changes to help treat IBD
At Nuvance Health, your gastroenterology team includes doctors specializing in the unique nutritional needs of people with IBD. They provide diet recommendations that can minimize flares, such as lean meat, fish, poultry, healthy fats and nutrient dense fruit and vegetables.
Surgery for IBD
In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove diseased tissue and leave disease-free bowel behind. Nowadays, surgeons frequently use minimally invasive techniques that use smaller incisions and preserve healthy tissue. Surgery for IBD may help you improve your quality of life. In some cases, surgery can be lifesaving.
The bottom line: IBD is a common term used to describe two conditions: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two different conditions and require different testing for diagnosis and different treatments for recovery.
We know IBD can be uncomfortable and difficult to live with. The first step is understanding IBD so you can recognize the symptoms and get on the path to recovery. It may help knowing there are treatments available to you, including medications and foods that can help minimize symptoms and flares.