Crohn’s disease—a type of inflammatory bowel disease that can cause immune system attacks on the digestive tract—has a handful of telltale symptoms, but ultimately, it affects each patient a little differently.
In general, symptoms tend to come and go in flares (active symptoms) and remissions (a period of little to no disease activity). Flares can be dangerous since they imply increased inflammation in the body, which can result in damage over time or an increased risk of other inflammatory problems (more on this later).
You can’t always tell what the inflammation in your body is like, however. “How you feel might not be the same as how it looks inside during a colonoscopy,” says David P. Hudesman, MD, associate professor at the Department of Medicine and medical director of the IBD Center at NYU Langone Health. In other words, you can have terrible symptoms but only mild inflammation on the inside, or you could also have severe inflammation yet no symptoms.
The Textbook Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s disease can affect anywhere in the digestive tract, which means symptoms can vary depending on where the body is inflamed. Is there inflammation in the stomach? Large intestine? Esophagus? All of the above? This can make a big difference in symptom presentation.
That said, here are the most common signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease:
Diarrhea, or frequent and urgent bowel movements
Sensation of constipation (or incomplete bowel movement)
Less common symptoms include fever, distended belly, and an abscess or swelling in the area, according to Dr. Hudesman.
Symptoms Beyond the GI Tract
As previously mentioned, symptoms of Crohn’s disease sometimes spread beyond the gastrointestinal tract. That’s because chronic inflammation in one part of the body (in this case, the GI tract) can often create inflammation in other parts of the body.
“Other common symptoms patients get are joint pains, so pain or swelling in their knees, their elbows, their ankles,” says Dr. Hudesman. Additionally, some people with Crohn’s disease might experience skin rashes, pain and redness in the eyes, or mouth sores—all created from chronic inflammation in the body.
It’s “not uncommon,” says Dr. Hudesman, to see a patient who has “a little bit of pain and diarrhea and they don't think much of it, but they've also been having knee pain and can't run as much as they used to, or they have developed recurrent mouth sores or skin rashes.” These can all be signs of Crohn’s disease, even if the bowel symptoms are mild.
Think you may have Crohn’s disease? “It's important when talking to a physician … to talk about every symptom you're feeling, not just what's related to your intestines and stomach,” says Dr. Hudesman. Learn more tips for making the most of your appointments for Crohn’s disease.
If it is Crohn’s disease, there are many treatment options for Crohn’s that can help you feel better and live a normal life. Additionally, here are lifestyle changes that can help manage Crohn’s symptoms.