Having diarrhea can make it feel like you’re kind of handcuffed (buttcuffed?) to your toilet. For many people, these bouts of excessively loose, watery stools are blessedly infrequent. But for people who have Crohn’s disease, diarrhea and other symptoms can happen often enough to interfere with regular life.
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the lining of your your digestive tract, which can spread deeper into your digestive tissues, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though people with Crohn’s can have symptom-free periods, during flares they may have to contend with awfully unpleasant or even debilitating symptoms that can run the gamut.
“Crohn's disease may attack different portions of the gastrointestinal tract and thus cause different problems in different people,” Jessica Philpott, M.D., Ph.D., a gastroenterologist who specializes in treating inflammatory bowel disease at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. In general, though, people with Crohn’s disease will experience some of the following symptoms:
Sure, pretty much everyone has diarrhea from time to time. However, if you have Crohn’s disease, you might experience it on a much more severe level, Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center and director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. Though it can vary, during flares people with Crohn's disease might have diarrhea lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months, Dr. Farhadi says.
The diarrhea happens because of the gut inflammation inherent to Crohn’s, Dr. Farhadi says. Even though Crohn’s can impact any part of your digestive system, it typically affects the last part of the small intestine (where most of the digestive process happens) and the colon (the longest part of the large intestine, which moves stool so it can exit your body), according to the Mayo Clinic. It makes perfect, painful sense that when these parts of your digestive tract are irritated, they can’t do their jobs properly—and you can get some pretty nasty diarrhea as a result. What’s more, that Crohn’s-induced inflammation can also cause the affected parts of your digestive tract to become hyperactive and spasm too much, Dr. Philpott says, which can force food to move through your system far too quickly, resulting in those really loose, watery stools.
2. Bloody poop
No one likes looking into the toilet bowl and seeing blood, but this can be a reality for people with Crohn’s. The illness can cause open sores (ulcers) anywhere in your digestive tract, the Mayo Clinic says. Unfortunately, those ulcers can bleed, causing bloody poop, Dr. Farhadi says. This is one of many reasons why you might see blood in your poop, which is always something to bring up to your doctor, even though it’s not always a sign of something this serious. But when accompanied by other symptoms on this list, it’s a clear red flag that something’s up with your gut.
3. Stomach pain and cramping
So, remember how that inflammation can make your intestines go way overboard with cramping? That can introduce a ton of pain into your life. Also, people with Crohn’s may eventually experience scarring and narrowing of their intestinal walls (known as intestinal strictures). “This causes pain and bloating because the stool has a hard time getting through,” Dr. Philpott says.
It’s not like if you have Crohn’s disease, you’re burning up 24/7. Instead, your temperature might spike when your digestive tract is under siege during a Crohn’s flare. Fever is one sign that your body’s immune system has activated in response to a threat, and this can happen because of inflammation tied to Crohn’s disease, Dr. Farhadi says.
It’s pretty much a given that when you’re dealing with Crohn’s disease symptoms like diarrhea and a fever, you’re not going to feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. All that inflammation and your body’s resulting immune response can make you feel wiped out, Dr. Farhadi says. Diarrhea and its effects can also be a culprit, Dr. Philpott says. When you have diarrhea, your body doesn’t absorb the nutrients you eat as well as it should, and that can affect your overall health, she explains. This can possibly even lead to issues like anemia and dehydration, both of which can make you feel tired. Finally, to round it out, symptoms of Crohn’s can keep you up at night, making things even worse, Dr. Philpott says.
6. Mouth sores
You may not usually think of your mouth as being part of your digestive system, but it is. Given that it’s part of your bigger digestive operation, your mouth can develop sores just like other parts of your system that Crohn’s can compromise, Dr. Farhadi says. The reason why these ulcers would specifically show up in a person’s mouth are unclear, but it’s all related to that systemic inflammation, Dr. Philpott says.
7. Unintended weight loss
It’s no wonder that you won’t necessarily having a raging appetite if you’re dealing with things like diarrhea, stomach pain, and mouth ulcers. “Some people may even be scared that eating will increase the pain,” Dr. Farhadi says. Combine that with the fact that Crohn’s can make it hard to fully absorb nutrients when you do manage to eat, and it’s easy to see why people with this illness may grapple with unintended weight loss.
8. Pain around your butt
People with Crohn’s can have ulcers so severe that the sores eat tunnels through their intestinal walls, creating an abnormal opening between different body parts. This is known as a fistula, according to the Mayo Clinic. In people with Crohn’s disease, they’re most common near or around the anal area, though they can also develop between the intestines and skin or intestines and another organ. As you might imagine, no matter how it happens, a fistula can be horrendously painful, so if one develops around your bottom, you might experience intense aching.
9. Skin, eye, and joint inflammation
While the above symptoms are more common signs of Crohn’s, this is a rare one that can hint at a more severe form of Crohn’s disease. Since Crohn’s is a systemic inflammatory condition, people who have it may also develop other inflammatory conditions that don’t only affect their digestive systems, like arthritis or other conditions that can lead to sore joints, the Mayo Clinic says. You might also have inflammatory eye problems, like conjunctivitis (the medical term for pink eye), or inflammatory skin issues, like erythema nodosum, which causes painful round nodules to pop up, often on the front of the legs.
10. Itchiness on large swaths of your skin
OK, so you might never think about the ducts (little tubes) that transport bile, an essential digestive fluid, from your liver to your gallbladder and small intestine. But sometimes, in what’s known as primary sclerosing cholangitis, inflammation scars and obstructs these ducts. Though the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, this reduced bile flow can lead to serious itching all over your body.
The majority of people with primary sclerosing cholangitis also have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s not necessarily a cause and effect thing—experts aren’t totally sure why this connection exists. “The cause is complex and not clearly understood,” Dr. Philpott says. Still, if your doctor does determine that you have primary sclerosing cholangitis, they should see whether you also have an inflammatory bowel disease, especially if you have any of the other symptoms on this list.
If you think you have Crohn’s disease, talk to your doctor. There is no cure for the condition, and we won’t sugarcoat it: Getting a handle on your symptoms can require a lot of trial, error, and patience. But seeing a doctor is the only way to get as close as you possibly can to eliminating your Crohn’s disease symptoms.