Crohn’s Disease


Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is a chronic condition that may recur at various times over a lifetime. It usually involves the small intestine, most often the lower part called the ileum. In some cases, both the small and large intestine are affected. Inflammation may also affect the entire digestive tract, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, appendix or anus.

Patients can be seen by Texas Children's experts in Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program.

Causes & Risk Factors

There are many theories regarding Crohn's disease, but none have been proven. One theory suggests that some agent, perhaps a virus or bacteria, affects the body's immune system and triggers an inflammatory reaction in the intestinal wall. Although there is a lot of evidence that patients with this disease have abnormalities of the immune system, it is not known whether the immune problems are a cause or a result of the disease.

Symptoms & Types

The following are the most common symptoms for Crohn's disease. Each individual may experience symptoms differently, however. Symptoms may include: 

  • Abdominal pain, often in the lower right area
  • Diarrhea, sometimes bloody
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Failure to grow
  • Joint pain
  • Rectal fissure
  • Perianal abscess
  • Mouth sores, ulcers
  • Rashes 

Some people have long periods of remission - sometimes lasting years - when they are free of symptoms. There is no way to predict when a remission may occur or when symptoms will return. 

The symptoms of Crohn's disease may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis & Tests

People who have experienced chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, weight loss and anemia may be examined for signs of Crohn's disease. In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for Crohn's disease may include: 

  • Blood tests. These tests determine if there is anemia resulting from blood loss, or if there is an increased number of white blood cells, suggesting an inflammatory process.
  • Stool culture. This determines if there is blood loss, or if an infection by a parasite or bacteria is causing the symptoms. 
  • Endoscopy. A test that uses a small, flexible tube with a light and a camera lens at the end (endoscope) to examine the inside of part of the digestive tract. Tissue samples from inside the digestive tract may also be taken for examination and testing. 
  • Colonoscopy. A procedure that allows the physician to view the entire length of the large intestine, and can often help identify abnormal growths, inflamed tissue, ulcers and bleeding. It involves inserting a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube, in through the rectum (the final section of the large intestine) up into the colon. The colonoscope allows the doctor to see the lining of the colon, remove tissue for further examination, and possibly treat some problems that are discovered.
  • Biopsy. A sample of tissue is taken from the lining of the colon for examination in a laboratory.
  • Upper GI (gastrointestinal) series (also called barium swallow). A diagnostic test that examines the organs of the upper part of the digestive system: the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). A fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an X-ray) is swallowed. X-rays are then taken to evaluate the digestive organs. An upper GI with a small bowel-follow through may be used to diagnose Crohn's disease.
  • Barium enema. A procedure performed to examine the large intestine for abnormalities. Barium is injected into the rectum as an enema. An X-ray of the abdomen will show strictures (narrowed areas), obstructions (blockages), and other problems.

Treatment & Care

At this time there is no cure for Crohn's disease. Several methods are helpful in controlling it, however. The goals of treatment may include: 

  • Correcting nutritional deficiencies.
  • Controlling inflammation.
  • Reducing abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding.

Specific treatment will be determined by your child's doctor based on the following: 

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • The extent of the disease
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include: 

  • Drug therapy (anti-inflammatory medications, cortisone or steroids, immune system suppressors, biologic therapies, antibiotics, anti-diarrheal medications, and fluid replacements). Abdominal cramps and diarrhea may be helped by medications, which often lessen the inflammation in the colon. More serious cases may require steroid drugs, antibiotics or drugs that affect the body's immune system
  • Diet and vitamin supplements. No special diet has been proven effective for preventing or treating Crohn's disease. Some symptoms are made worse by milk, alcohol, hot spices, or fiber, but this may not be true for everyone. Large doses of vitamins are ineffective and may even cause harmful side effects.

Children lose weight because of inadequate calorie intake, which can be due to several factors:

  • They may avoid eating to prevent pain associated with digestion.
  • They may absorb nutrients poorly through the inflamed digestive tract.
  • They have greater nutritional needs than average because of their disease.

If favorite foods are eliminated from the diet, they may not feel enthusiastic about eating.

Nutritional supplements or special high-calorie liquid formulas may sometimes be suggested, especially for children with delayed growth. 

  • Feeding through a vein. A small number of patients, who temporarily need extra nutrition, may need periods of feeding by vein (intravenously).
  • Surgery. Crohn's disease may be helped by surgery, but it cannot be cured by surgery. The inflammation tends to return to the areas of the intestine next to the area that has been removed. Surgery may help relieve chronic symptoms of active disease that do not respond to medical therapy or to correct complications, such as intestinal blockage, perforation, abscess, or bleeding. 

Types of surgery include:    

  • Drainage of abscesses or removal of a section of bowel due to blockage, resulting in a shortened bowel. 
  • Ostomy. Some people must have part of their intestines removed, and a new method of removing the stool from the body is created. The surgery to create the new opening is called ostomy and the new opening is called a stoma.    

Different types of ostomy are performed depending on how much and what part of the intestines are removed, and may include: 

  • Ileostomy. The colon and rectum are removed and the bottom part of the small intestine (ileum) is attached to the stoma. 
  • Colostomy. A surgically-created opening in the abdomen through which a small portion of the colon is brought up to the surface of the skin. Sometimes, a temporary colostomy may be performed when part of the colon has been removed and the rest of the colon needs to heal. 
  • Ileoanal reservoir surgery. An alternative to a permanent ileostomy, this procedure is completed in two surgeries. First, the colon and rectum are removed and a temporary ileostomy is performed. Second, the ileostomy is closed and part of the small intestine is used to create an internal pouch to hold stool. This pouch is attached to the anus. The muscle of the rectum is left in place, so the stool in the pouch does not leak out of the anus. People who have this surgery are able to control their bowel movements. 

What happens if part of the bowel is removed, resulting in "short bowel syndrome?" 

The intestines help to digest and absorb foods. Malabsorption occurs when food is not digested well and nutrients are not absorbed into the body. This can lead to poor growth and development. Children with short bowel syndrome can have a reduced ability to absorb nutrients from the foods they eat. Malabsorption occurs because part of the intestines have been removed or are not functioning properly.   

Common symptoms of malabsorption include the following: 

  • Diarrhea 
  • Steatorrhea (large amounts of fat in the stool) 
  • Weight loss or poor growth 
  • Dehydration 
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies 

Is special nutrition needed if my child has short bowel syndrome? 

Because diarrhea is the primary symptom of short bowel syndrome, the goal of the diet plan is to help control and/or reduce diarrhea and malabsorption. Guidelines that may help control diarrhea include the following: 

  • Eat small, frequent meals. 
  • Avoid foods with milk or milk products containing lactose if there is a history of lactose intolerance. 
  • Drink liquids at room temperature. 
  • Drink liquids between meals rather than with meals. 
  • Avoid caffeine. 
  • Avoid foods with sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol. 
  • Avoid concentrated sweets such as candy, cakes, and pies. 
  • Avoid gas-producing foods such as:

    • Beans 
    • Peas 
    • Broccoli 
    • Onions 
    • Cauliflower 
    • Cabbage 
  • Include sources of soluble fiber such as:

    • Bananas  
    • Rice  
    • Applesauce  
    • Tapioca  
    • Oatmeal 

Children with short bowel syndrome often need total parenteral nutrition (TPN) to help meet their nutritional needs. TPN is a special mixture of glucose, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals that is given through an IV into the veins. Many people call it intravenous feedings. TPN provides the nutrients your child needs when she cannot eat or absorb the nutrients from foods. The TPN solution is usually infused continuously over several hours of the day.

Living & Managing

Crohn's disease is a chronic condition that may recur at various times over a lifetime. Children may experience physical, emotional, social, and family problems as a result of the disease, increasing the importance of proper management and treatment of the condition.

The following chart summarizes some of the problems children may face.

Emotional Responses

Social Problems

Effects on the Family

  • Mood swings due to illness and medications
  • Blaming self for disease
  • Frustration with physical problems Feeling different from everyone else
  • Anger: "Why me?"
  • Worry about appearance, slow growth, weight loss
  • Feeling vulnerable; unable to rely on body to function normally like everyone else
  • Frustration at physical limitations, being unable to keep up with friends
  • Coping with being teased by classmates
  • Embarrassment over frequent bathroom use Peer pressure regarding food choices
  • Handling other people's lack of knowledge about the disease
  • Change in physical stamina
  • Changes in ability to concentrate on schoolwork
  • Understanding the needs of the child with Crohn's disease, as well as the rest of the family's needs
  • Need for mutual support of all family members
  • Need for all family members to learn about the disease and understand its effects on the child
  • Learning to cope with unexpected changes in family routine
  • Trying to channel frustration when angry
  • Respect for privacy
  • Encouraging independence of the child with Crohn's disease

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