August 21, 2014
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Crohn's & Colitis

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What are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis?

Your digestive system helps you digest food and eliminate solid waste from your body. It includes your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum, and anus. Figure 1 shows the different parts of the digestive system.

Figure 1

"Crohn's and colitis," also known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), is a medical term that describes two separate diseases affecting the digestive system:

Both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis damage the lining of the digestive system by causing inflammation, sores, bleeding, and scarring. This can lead to painful, embarrassing symptoms, such as abdominal pain and cramps and diarrhea (which may be bloody). Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, malnutrition, and weight loss. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis can also cause symptoms outside of the digestive system, such as fatigue, fever, mouth ulcers, skin rashes, eye inflammation, or joint pain.

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis have many symptoms in common, but they are separate medical conditions. So what's the difference between Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis?

  • Crohn's disease can affect any part of the digestive system, while ulcerative colitis affects only the colon (large intestine).
  • The inflammation caused by Crohn's disease can penetrate deep into the walls of the bowel tissue. Ulcerative colitis tends to affect a single layer of the bowel wall (inner lining).
  • Crohn's disease inflammation tends to occur in patches throughout the digestive system, while ulcerative colitis inflammation tends to affect a continuous area of the colon, usually starting from the rectum and moving up through the colon.
  • Although Crohn's disease can be effectively managed with medications, it cannot be cured. Ulcerative colitis can be controlled with medications or can be cured surgically by removing the colon.

Both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are life-long conditions that can have a serious effect on your life. These conditions are unpredictable - people with Crohn's disease and/or ulcerative colitis have attacks (also called "flare-ups") followed by periods of "remission" when the symptoms go away. During a flare-up, you may be unable to work or do your usual activities because of debilitating symptoms. You may end up in the hospital or require surgery. All of these things can take a toll on you and your life.

If you think you might have Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, or if you're living with one of these conditions and you have questions, talk to your doctor.

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