Crohn’s disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the intestines. IBD occurs in children as a result of genetic and environmental factors. For reasons that are not yet clearly understood, the child’s immune system becomes abnormally active against his or her own intestines.
Crohn’s disease involves the end of the small intestine (ileum) and the beginning of the large intestine (colon). It may also involve any part of the digestive system from the mouth to the end of the rectum (anus). Ulcerative colitis (UC) is another form of IBD, and while the symptoms of UC and Crohn’s are quite similar, the areas affected in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are different.
Causes of Crohn’s Disease
The exact causes of Crohn’s disease are not completely known, but it is thought to be the result of genetic, immune system, and environmental factors. A child’s risk of having Crohn’s is about 10x greater if they have a relative with the disease. If the relative is a sibling, the risk becomes 30x greater.
It is believed that in children with Crohn’s, the intestines are mistaken for antigens, or invading substances in the body. As a result, the immune system causes inflammation to combat the antigens. Inflammation can also be triggered by microorganisms and bacteria in the intestines.
Research has revealed that Crohn’s is more common in urban than in rural areas and more common in northern climates than in southern climates. And while certain foods can aggravate symptoms, diet cannot cause or treat Crohn’s disease.
Symptoms of Crohn’s
The symptoms of Crohn’s disease often depend on the severity of the disease and the location of the disease in the bowel. Often children with Crohn’s disease have periods of severe symptoms followed by periods of remission (no symptoms). Most children experience a combination of the following:
- Chronic diarrhea (often with blood and mucus)
- Abdominal tenderness and pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Unexplained fevers
Children with Crohn’s disease can have complications such as stunted growth, weak bones, and delayed puberty. Other symptoms can occur from complications of the disease.
- Swelling of the eyes and mouth
- Liver disease
- Skin rashes
- Kidney stones
How Is It Treated?
Because Crohn’s is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, the goal of treatment is reduction in symptoms and remission. Periods of remission can last for weeks or years, and there is no way to predict when symptoms will return. When Crohn’s disease is active, treatment focuses on controlling inflammation and relieving symptoms of pain, diarrhea, and fever. Medication is often the first step in treating children with Crohn’s disease. Typical medications may include:
- Immunosuppressing drugs
- Supplements for nutritional deficiencies
If medications fail to control the symptoms of Crohn’s, surgery to remove part of the bowel may be necessary.
It is important for children managing Crohn’s to have a healthy lifestyle. They should exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. Most children with Crohn’s disease are able to live an active life and participate in school, activities, and sports when the disease is treated properly.