Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is another term for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Both are autoimmune diseases characterized by long-term inflammation that damages your digestive tract. Crohn’s disease affects any part of your digestive tract, while ulcerative colitis is only in your colon and rectum.

The inflammation causes ulcers or sores along your intestines. They can bleed and prevent your digestive tract from working properly. As a result, the food you eat isn’t digested or absorbed and that causes malnutrition.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a life-long condition that flares up periodically and changes over time. People with IBD often require medicine to manage it, but diet and lifestyle changes may help minimize the symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove parts of your digestive tract that are severely damaged.

“We have a variety of medical treatments we can use for any stage or severity of disease,” says  Jeffrey Dueker, MD, gastroenterologist, UPMC IBD Center.“It’s important to remember that surgery remains an important part of treatment. However, we generally like to start with medical therapies, if possible, in most patients.” 

What Are the Symptoms Of IBD? 

“The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease depend on the location of inflammation,” Dr. Dueker says.  

“If the inflammation is in the colon, you can experience diarrhea, blood in the stool, urgency, and cramping. If it’s located in other parts of the GI tract — for example, the small intestine — some patients experience pain and diarrhea.” 

Symptoms of IBD often impact your quality of life. They can include:

  • Severe stomach pain.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Bleeding from the rectum.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Fatigue.

IBD also can cause other health problems, such as:

  • Joint pain and swelling.
  • Skin rashes.
  • Eye pain and redness.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Osteoporosis (brittle bones).
  • Anemia.
  • Kidney stones.
  • Liver diseases.

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Risk Factors for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

If someone in your immediate family has IBD, your level of risk is higher. But not everyone with a family history will develop it. Also, you can have no family history and still develop IBD.

Your genes are one important risk factor, but other things play a role too. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes inflammatory bowel disease, but these things can greatly increase your risk:

  • Exposure to certain things in the environment, like cigarette smoke.
  • History of antibiotic use.
  • Frequent use of NSAID medicines like aspirin or ibuprofen.
  • A history of infections as a baby.
  • Variations in your gut microbiome (the bacteria in your digestive tract).

How Your Immune System Works

“The treatment approach for any patient with inflammatory bowel disease is highly individualized,” Dr. Dueker says. “Here at UPMC, we have a dedicated team of IBD experts. We also have a multidisciplinary care model approach.”

An important thing about IBD and other autoimmune diseases is that you can have the risk factors and be fine. In some people, however, these factors can come together in a perfect storm to trigger an immune system malfunction.

With any autoimmune disease, something causes your immune system to start attacking healthy cells. In the case of IBD, it’s your digestive tract that’s under attack.

Who Is Most at Risk?

Inflammatory bowel disease can affect anyone and seems to affect men and women in equal numbers. It also affects people of any racial or ethnic group. But sometimes the symptoms are different between ethnic groups.

People most commonly affected by inflammatory bowel disease include those who:

  • Are between the ages of 15 and 35.
  • Live in colder, northern climates.
  • Live in urban areas.

People with other autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to have IBD.

How to Prevent Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Just as no one’s sure what causes IBD, there’s no guaranteed way to prevent it. If you have a family history of this or other autoimmune diseases, here are a few steps you can take to reduce the risk factors for IBD:

  • Decrease your exposure to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals.
  • Take antibiotics or pain reliever medicines only when necessary — and only give them to your children when recommended by their doctor.
  • Take care of your immune system by eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress.
  • Support healthy bacteria in your gut by eating more high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, or naturally fermented vegetables also are great for your gut.
  • Ask your doctor or a dietitian if you should take a probiotic supplement.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a serious medical condition that can greatly impact your life. The specialists at UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center can help you better understand IBD, including how to identify personal risk factors and reduce them.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Digestive Disorders

UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.