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Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term used to describe disorders that involve chronic inflammation of your digestive tract.
Types of IBD
Ulcerative colitis. This condition causes long-lasting inflammation and sores in the innermost lining of your large intestine and rectum.
Crohn's disease. This type of IBD is characterized by inflammation of the lining of your digestive tract, which often spreads deep into affected tissues.
What causes inflammatory bowel disease?
The exact cause of IBD is unknown. However, genetics and problems with the immune system have been associated with IBD.
Genetics. You might be more likely to develop IBD if you have a sibling or parent with the disease. This is why scientists believe IBD may have a genetic component.
The immune system. The immune system may also play a role in IBD. Normally, the immune system defends the body from pathogens (organisms that cause diseases and infections). A bacterial or viral infection of the digestive tract can trigger an immune response. As the body tries to fight off the invaders, the digestive tract becomes inflamed. When the infection is gone, the inflammation goes away. That’s a healthy response. In people with IBD, however, digestive tract inflammation can happen even when there’s no infection. The immune system attacks the body’s own cells instead. This is known as an autoimmune response. IBD can also occur when the inflammation doesn’t go away after the infection is cured. The inflammation may continue for months or even years.
What are the risk factors for developing inflammatory bowel disease?
The biggest risk factors for developing Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis include:
Smoking. Smoking is one of the main risk factors for developing Crohn’s disease. Smoking also aggravates the pain and other symptoms of Crohn’s disease and increases the risk of complications. However, ulcerative colitis primarily affects nonsmokers and ex-smokers.
Ethnicity. IBD is present in all populations. However, certain ethnic groups such as Caucasians and Ashkenazi Jews have a higher risk.
Age. IBD can happen at any age, but in most cases, it starts before the age of 35.
Family history. People who have a parent, sibling, or child with IBD are at a much higher risk for developing it themselves.
Geographical region. People who live in urban areas and industrialized countries have a higher risk of getting IBD. Those with white collar jobs are also more likely to develop the disease. This can be partially explained by lifestyle choices and diet. People who live in industrialized countries tend to eat more fat and processed food. IBD is also more common among people living in northern climates, where it’s often cold.
Gender. In general, IBD affects both genders equally. Ulcerative colitis is more common among men, while Crohn’s disease is more common among women.
What Are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
As with other chronic diseases, a person with IBD will generally go through periods in which the disease flares up and causes symptoms, followed by periods in which symptoms decrease or disappear and good health returns. Symptoms range from mild to severe and generally depend upon what part of the intestinal tract is involved. They include:
•Abdominal cramps and pain
•Diarrhea that may be bloody
•Severe urgency to have a bowel movement
•Loss of appetite
•Iron deficiency anemia due to blood loss
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.
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