What Causes Crohn's Disease? These 10 Risk Factors May Surprise You

Over 30,000 new cases of Crohn's disease are diagnosed each year, affecting over 780,000 Americans overall. Yet, surprisingly, the causes of Crohn's disease are still unknown.

What is Crohn's Disease?

Crohn's disease is classified as a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A lifelong condition, Crohn's disease causes chronic inflammation within the digestive tract, most commonly in either the small intestine or the top part of the colon, or large intestine. Any part of the digestive tract, from top to bottom, however, can be severely affected.

What are the Symptoms of Crohn's Disease?

Crohn's disease symptoms can vary, but typically include the following:

  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramping and pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • joint pain
  • fever
  • blood in stool
  • eye soreness and redness
  • skin redness, from patches to bumps

These symptoms can come and go, and also disappear for weeks, if not months, at a time.

What are the Complications of Crohn's Disease?

Depending upon the location and severity of this disease, the following complications can occur:

  • Bowel Obstruction and Rupture. The thickness of the intestinal walls is affected by Crohn's disease. When these walls become scarred and narrow, digestive flow can be disrupted and blocked. Surgery may be necessary. Perforation, or rupture of the colon or small intestine, although rare, can potentially be life-threatening.
  • Ulcer Formation. Open sores, or ulcers, can form due to the chronic inflammation. These can develop anywhere along the digestive tract, from mouth to anus.
  • Fistulae Formation. If ulcers protrude through the intestinal wall, they create a fistula, which is an unnatural connection between body parts. This can be between your intestine and your skin, or between your intestine and another one of your organs. A common fistula is a perianal fistula. If a fistula forms within the bowels, connecting with skin, infection can occur, forming an abscess which, if not treated, can be potentially life-threatening.
  • Intestinal Bleeding. Intestinal bleeding can be dangerous if left undiagnosed and untreated.
  • Increased Risk of Colon Cancer. Colon cancer is a deadly form of cancer, second only to cancer of the lung. It is curable, however, if diagnosed and treated in time.
  • Malnutrition. Malnutrition can lead to several health problems, from diabetes and heart disease to anemia and eye issues.

Causes of Crohn's Disease

While no one is exactly sure what causes Crohn's disease, the following risk factors have been identified as most likely playing a key role in the development of the disease...

1. Malfunctioning Immune System

A likely factor in developing Crohn's disease is an immune system malfunction. This could be the immune system attacking helpful microbes by mistake or an inflammatory response that somehow goes haywire and doesn't stop.

Why a Malfunctioning Immune System Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

The immune system is the body's defense system. When the body is invaded, such as by a virus or bacteria, the immune system response causes inflammation. Once the threat has been disabled, this inflammation normally subsides.

However, if the immune system is malfunctioning for some reason, chronic inflammation can occur, which can result in injury to the digestive system.

2. Heredity

Crohn's disease often runs in families, making genetics a contributing risk factor.

Why Heredity Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

Scientists have identified particular genes, or gene mutations, in those with Crohn's disease. As such, family members may inherit the genes, making them more susceptible to the disease.

3. Smoking

Cigarette smoking is a risk closely identified with developing Crohn's disease and is perhaps one of the easiest of the risk factors to control.

Why Cigarette Smoking Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

Smoking has often been linked to numerous health conditions, and that also includes Crohn's disease.

Why, though?

Smoking can lower the natural defenses within the intestine, interfere with natural blood flow, and also damage the immune system, causing more inflammation. Also, some studies show that smoking can affect those inherited genes that make the body more prone to Crohn's disease.

4. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medications (NSAIDs)

Usage of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil), and naproxen sodium (Aleve) may also contribute to the development of Crohn's disease.

Why Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medications Increase the Risk of Crohn's Disease

Experts are still divided on why these medications may harm some Crohn's patients. To play it safe, most physicians simply advise their IBD patients to steer clear of these medications all together. If someone requires an NSAID to tackle another condition, they should speak to their doctor first.

5. Antibiotics

Certain antibiotics can cause flare-ups of symptoms associated with Crohn's disease.

Why Antibiotics Increase the Risk of Crohn's Disease

A change in the balance of bacteria in the intestine occurs when antibiotics are taken. In other words, antibiotics don't just kill bad bacteria in the gut; good bacteria may be killed off, too.

Also, antibiotics such as penicillin, fluoroquinolones, and clindamycin can cause certain bacteria to not only grow but also infect the intestinal lining, leading to a greater risk of developing or complicating existing Crohn's disease.

6. Oral Contraceptives

Taking oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, may lead to an increased risk of developing an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), particularly Crohn's disease.

Why Oral Contraceptives Increase the Risk of Crohn's Disease

The hormones found in oral contraceptives, estrogen and progestin, tend to weaken the gastrointestinal tract, creating an ideal condition for developing Crohn's disease.

7. High-fat Diet

A high-fat diet has been linked to many health concerns, one of which is Crohn's disease.

Why a High Fat Diet Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

A diet high in fat can change gastrointestinal bacteria and can also cause inflammation. When fat intake is boosted, the amount of good bacteria in the digestive tract decreases while the bad type of bacteria increases, throwing off the digestive balance.

8. Age

Although Crohn's disease can occur at any age, younger people, including children, are the most susceptible. This grouping includes adults under 30.

Why Age Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

The initial onset of Crohn's disease typically occurs at younger ages, from approximately 15-25 years of age.

9. Ethnicity

Ethnicity is another risk factor for this condition. At highest risk are Caucasians living in northern countries, or having ancestors from those regions. Those of Jewish descent have also been identified as being at high risk for developing Crohn's disease.

Why Ethnicity Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

Ethnicity may increase the risk of developing Crohn's disease due to family genetics. Specific regional, cultural, and religious diets may also play a role.

However, these are currently just speculations, as experts still don't know exactly how ethnicity influences the development of this disease—just that ethnicity appears to be a risk factor for Crohn's.

10. Geographic Location

Some experts believe that where you live can have a profound effect on your health, including influencing whether you develop Crohn's disease or not.

Why Geographic Location Increases the Risk of Crohn's Disease

Environmental factors in certain locations can increase the risk of developing Crohn's disease. These identified geographic regions include:

  • developed countries
  • urban areas
  • northern countries

What's Next?

Although the exact causes of Crohn's disease are still unknown, many risk factors can contribute to the development of the disease within the body. Just to recap, these risk factors include immune system malfunction, genetic inheritance, smoking, medications such as antibiotics and NSAIDs, oral contraceptives, a high fat diet, age, ethnicity, and geographic location.

What should people who are at risk for this condition know most of all?...

What to Do Next

Becoming aware of the symptoms and potential complications of Crohn's disease is imperative to maintaining overall good health. Learning to recognize these symptoms can also help you seek relief sooner rather than later.

Seek Medical Help

If you experience continuing changes in bowel habits or experience the following, it's time to seek medical help:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • blood in stool
  • ongoing diarrhea that hasn't responded to over-the-counter medicines
  • fever lasting for more than a few days
  • sudden, unexplained weight loss

While there is no current cure for Crohn's disease, there are treatments available to help relieve its symptoms and potentially push it into remission.

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