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Inflammatory Bowel Disease

What Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes parts of the intestine (bowel) to get red and swollen (inflammation). It's a chronic problem, which means it lasts a long time or constantly comes and goes.

There are two kinds of IBD: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. These diseases have many things in common, but there are important differences:

  • Crohn's disease can happen in any part of the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus (where poop comes out). Crohn's disease damages the entire bowel wall.
  • Ulcerative colitis happens only in the large intestine, also called the colon. It causes sores called ulcers on the inner lining of the colon.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

The most common symptoms of IBD are belly pain and diarrhea. Other symptoms include:

  • blood in the toilet, on toilet paper, or in the poop
  • fever
  • low energy
  • weight loss

When symptoms happen, it’s called a flare-up.

IBD can make it hard for someone to get all the calories and nutrition they need. Some kids and teens may grow slowly or start puberty later than usual. It can cause other problems, such as rashes, eye problems, joint pain and arthritis, and liver problems.

What Causes Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

The exact cause of IBD is not clear. It’s probably a combination of genetics, the immune system, and something in the environment that triggers inflammation. Diet and stress may make symptoms worse, but probably don't cause IBD.

IBD tends to run in families. But not everyone with IBD has someone in the family with it. It can happen at any age, but usually is diagnosed in teens and young adults.

How Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease Diagnosed?

If you have any of the symptoms of IBD, it's important to see your doctor. The doctor will do an exam and ask about symptoms, your past health, your family's health, and the medicines you take. 

The doctor might order blood tests, stool (poop) tests, X-rays, and other tests, and will check your poop for blood.

The doctor might look at your stomach and intestines with an endoscope, a long, thin tube with a camera at the end. In a colonoscopy, the doctor puts the tube in through the anus to look for inflammation, bleeding, or ulcers on the colon. In an upper endoscopy, the doctor passes the tube down the throat to see the stomach and small intestine. During the procedure, the doctor might take small tissue samples. These will go to a lab for testing.

How Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease Treated?

IBD is treated with medicines, changes in diet, and sometimes surgery. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms, prevent other problems and future flare-ups, and possibly heal the inflamed intestines.

IBD is treated with anti-inflammatory medicines, including steroids, to reduce inflammation. If these don’t help your symptoms, the doctor may prescribe other medicines called immunomodulators or biologics. These target the immune system to stop inflammation.

Doctors also may prescribe antibiotics to prevent or treat infections. People with IBD should always check with their doctor before using antidiarrheal medicine.

Someone with IBD should eat healthy foods, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid foods that make symptoms worse. They can work with a dietitian to come up with an eating plan that's best for them. If you've been diagnosed with IBD, you can keep a food diary to find out which foods make your symptoms worse.

IBD may delay puberty or cause growth problems for some teens because of poor appetite, diarrhea, and not being able to digest nutrients. Some teens may need vitamin and mineral supplements, like calcium or vitamin D. Someone who's not growing well may need special drinks or shakes to boost nutrition.

Sometimes, people with IBD need surgery if symptoms don’t get better with medicine. Other reasons for surgery include:

  • a hole in the bowel
  • a blocked intestine
  • bleeding that doesn’t stop

What Else Should I Know?

Many people with IBD have periods of times with few or no symptoms. Talk to your doctor about ways that you can feel better during flare-ups. Because stress can make symptoms worse, it’s important to get enough sleep and manage stress in positive ways. Yoga, meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques, music, art, dance, writing, or talking to a friend can help.

If you feel sad or anxious about your symptoms, talk to a parent, doctor, or other trusted adult. It may also help to talk to a therapist or other mental health provider.

As you get older, you can take on more responsibility for managing your health care. Taking you medicines for IBD, taking care of yourself, and keeping a positive attitude can help you stay on track.

You also can find more information and support online at:

Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: September 2021