Can Crohn’s Disease Kill You?


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Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, that causes inflammation of the digestive system. It can occur anywhere throughout the long digestive tract.

Symptoms of Crohn’s can be difficult to live with, either developing slowly, or flaring-up suddenly.

Crohn’s disease itself will not kill you. Although it can be uncomfortable, and even debilitating, the disease itself is not fatal. However, complications from Crohn’s can lead to life-threatening problems. In contrast, Crohn’s can also go into long periods of remission.

There is much we still don’t understand about Crohn’s disease, including exactly what causes it. In this article we’ll cover what Crohn’s disease is, and the potential ramifications of inadequately treated Crohn’s.

Although the disease itself won’t kill you, the condition requires lifelong care. 

What is Crohn’s Disease?

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease. With Crohn’s disease, inflammation of the digestive tract is caused by an abnormal response of the immune system. These inflammatory responses are often found in only one area (usually the terminal ileum – or very end of the small intestine), but Crohn’s can affect the entire digestive system.

Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are diarrhea, stomach pain, cramping, bloating, nausea, and weight loss. 

Those living with Crohn’s disease often find that it goes through periods of flare-ups and remission. During remission periods, the symptoms become mild, and may disappear altogether. However, a flare-up can be incredibly painful, and especially uncomfortable if following an extended period of remission.

Repeated damage from Crohn’s can, over time, cause serious complications.

Can Crohn’s Disease Kill You?

Crohn’s disease itself cannot kill you. With correct treatment, it’s possible to manage Crohn’s disease effectively. However, there is no cure. Even if there is a long period of remission, Crohn’s disease hasn’t been cured.

Although Crohn’s disease itself is not fatal, it can lead to serious complications — especially if left untreated. These complications can become life-threatening.

What’s The Life Expectancy For Someone Living With Crohn’s Disease?

The life expectancy for those with Crohn’s disease is similar to the average life expectancy, if slightly reduced. A recent study found that those diagnosed with an IBD have a difference in life expectancy of around 5 to 8 years. It also theorized that much of that difference was due to pain, and its effect on daily functioning. 

The medication used to treat severe cases of Crohn’s disease can also affect life expectancy. Those who take immunosuppressive drugs called thiopurines as a Crohn’s treatment are more at risk of opportunistic infections and lymphoma.

Other factors, such as whether the person smokes, age of diagnosis, and the effects of prolonged untreated inflammation can all affect the life expectancy of someone living with Crohn’s.

Early treatment and consistent care allows many people living with Crohn’s to lead full and comfortable lives. Constantly improving treatments has increased the life expectancy of those living with Crohn’s.

Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease vary depending on where the bowel is affected. Common symptoms to be aware of are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Blood or mucus in the stool
  • Loss of appetite

Other complications commonly caused by Crohn’s include mouth ulcers, anemia, kidney stones, gallstones, and nutritional deficiencies.

Those with Crohn’s often develop symptoms around the eyes. This may be redness and irritation, sensitivity to light, blurry vision, or an inflammation of the eyelids.  They can also develop an inflammatory arthritis or one of several related skin conditions.

Complications Related To Crohn’s Disease

Intestinal Strictures

A stricture occurs when repeated swelling and scarring of the intestine leads to the area becoming narrowed. An intestinal stricture can be treated with medication if still in an inflammatory phase.

If too chronic, there is usually scar tissue that does not respond to medical therapy. In those cases, surgery can be used to widen the intestine or to remove the narrowed segment. Left untreated, a stricture can lead to a perforation or fistula.

Fistulas

Fistulas are a type of deep ulcer caused by excessive inflammation.  Fistulas can communicate with another portion of the intestine, the bladder, vagina, or even the skin.  If early on, sometimes fistulas can be treated with medication, but they also may require surgery.

Colorectal Cancer

Those suffering from Crohn’s disease are at a slightly higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Furthermore, those with Crohn’s have a higher risk of dying from colorectal cancer than those without.

Regular checkups should be performed on those who are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

How is Crohn’s Disease Diagnosed?

Many of the common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are also indications of other conditions, which can make a diagnosis tricky. A doctor will often begin by asking about the symptoms, and inquiring about a family history of the disease. 

If the doctor, or patient, is considering a Crohn’s diagnosis, several tests are then likely to be carried out.

  • Blood tests, to check for the presence of infections or anemia
  • Stool samples, to check for potential infections and to assess for an elevated inflammatory marker or white blood cells in the stool
  • A colonoscopy, to view the colon and terminal ileum, and take biopsies, which is how Crohn’s is officially diagnosed
  • Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans, to view the entire bowel

Research has shown that most develop Crohn’s either between the ages of 15 and 30 or 40 and 60.

Reaching a Crohn’s disease diagnosis can be complicated. A combination of colonoscopy with biopsies, history and imaging may be required to confirm a diagnosis.

What Causes Crohn’s Disease?

The exact causes of Crohn’s disease are still unknown. However, theories have been developed to offer a better understanding of exactly what causes Crohn’s disease to develop.

Crohn’s disease is thought to be the result of an autoimmune reaction. This is when the immune system mistakenly perceives healthy tissue as dangerous, and starts attacking.

In this case, the immune system releases the protein tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which kills even friendly bacteria and tissue.

The exact trigger for this immune response is still unknown. It may be related to previous infections.

The chances of developing Crohn’s disease are higher if you have a close family member who also has the condition. This suggests that genetics play a role in the development of Crohn’s disease. There may also be an environmental link.

How is Crohn’s Disease Treated?

Treatments for Crohn’s disease vary greatly depending on the person, with lifestyle changes and medications generally used to decrease the risk of inflammation.

Medications

Often the first medication used for treating Crohn’s disease will be an anti-inflammatory. These drugs, such as corticosteroids and aminosalicylates, reduce inflammation.

Crohn’s disease may also be treated with immunosuppressants, designed to suppress the immune response causing the inflammation.

In some cases, biological treatments may be used. These antibodies are often injected into the skin or given through an intravenous infusion, and are designed to influence the immune response.

Other medications used to treat Crohn’s include antidiarrheal drugs, antibiotics, and pain relievers. These target specific symptoms.

Diet and lifestyle changes

Dietary changes are often recommended by doctors to reduce the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. These changes include avoiding foods high in fiber, eating smaller meals more frequently, and monitoring your diet for trigger foods.

Avoiding smoking is an essential lifestyle change for anyone diagnosed with Crohn’s.

Surgery

Surgical procedures to remove an affected part of the gastrointestinal tract is a common treatment in patients where medication isn’t having the desired effect.

However, the necessity for surgery is decreasing as treatments improve.  Surgery is also not curative.  People can develop recurrent disease at the locations where bowel is reconnected after cutting out a segment.

Can Crohn’s Disease Kill You Final Thoughts

Crohn’s disease is not fatal, but it can result in dangerous complications. Careful management and treatment reduces the risk of these complications.

As the understanding of Crohn’s continues to grow, treatments and medications improve. Many people with Crohn’s can live full and comfortable lives.

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