Crohn's DiseaseCrohn's and Colitis: What's the Difference?

Crohn’s and Colitis: What’s the Difference?

Known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s and colitis are painful, chronic diseases with no known cures. Currently, it’s estimated that over 3.1 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with IBD, a statistic that makes up half of the disease’s global impact.  

While millions of Americans live with Crohn’s or colitis, many do not understand these invisible diseases, often seeing them as more or less the same. But there’s a difference between the two conditions, and on this Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week, Pain Resource is raising awareness.

Crohn’s and Colitis — Differences You Should Know

Crohn's and Colitis infographic

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis often seem interchangeable to many people as they are both inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) that affect the digestive tract. But while they are the most common types of IBD, they are not the same. Both conditions have their own set of symptoms, inflammation locations, and even different forms of therapy. To ensure you receive fast treatment and avoid negative health outcomes, it’s important to recognize the differences.

1. Location of inflammation

The biggest difference between Crohn’s and colitis is the location of inflammation in the digestive tract, as well as the degree to which the deeper layers of the gut are involved in the inflammatory process.

For instance, from the mouth to the anus, Crohn’s disease can affect all areas of the digestive tract, and may even penetrate through the intestinal wall, causing complications such as abscess formation, narrowing of the intestines, or a fistula, i.e., an abnormal connection from the bowel to other structures in the body. In contrast, Ulcerative colitis affects only the large intestine or colon, inflaming it’s lining and causing abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood in stool, and weight loss.

2. Symptoms

No two people will experience Crohn’s or colitis the same way as symptoms vary from person to person. For Crohn’s disease, the most common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Other symptoms can include:
  • Constipation and bloating
  • Pain from perianal irritation from fistula formation
  • Fatigue and nutritional deficiencies
  • Blood in stool
  • Fever

And when it comes to colitis, symptoms tend to overlap with Crohn’s, but they can also present as:

  • Urgency for bowel movements
  • An ability to have a bowel movement
  • Diarrhea with or without blood
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Mucus in stool

How Are Crohn’s and Colitis Diagnosed?

A colonoscopy, a procedure in which a small camera it used to look inside the rectum and colon for signs of irritation and inflamed tissue, is the standard procedure for diagnosing both Crohn’s and colitis.

If your doctor sees that inflammation starts at the rectum and moves continuously through the colon, this could be a sign of ulcerative colitis. And if pockets of inflammation are found between healthy tissue throughout the digestive tract, your doctor will likely diagnose you with Crohn’s disease. Additionally, you may be asked for a stool sample to inspect for signs of mucus or blood.

Treatment Options for Crohn’s and Colitis

Crohn’s and colitis are chronic illnesses with no known cures, but there are several forms of therapies to alleviate symptoms and reduce inflammation, allowing the body to repair damaged tissue. Treatment options vary based on severity of symptoms but typically are multifaceted as a combination of diet, medication, and lifestyle changes are employed to slow the progression of the disease. And for extreme cases, your doctor may even recommend surgery to repair or remove affected portions of your digestive tract.

Therapies for Crohn’s and colitis include:

  • Diet and nutrition – While there is no single diet for everyone, your food choices can make all the difference when it comes to reducing flare ups and inflammation in the digestive tract. Moreover, it’s important to maintain a diverse and nutrient-dense diet even after symptoms have subsided. Focus on fiber-rich foods, lean proteins, probiotics, fruits and vegetables, in addition to staying hydrated with plenty of water to keep Crohn’s and colitis symptoms at bay and support a healthy gut.
  • Medication – Many patients with irritable bowel diseases like Crohn’s and colitis take a class of drugs called biologics, which are human-made proteins designed to target areas in the immune system that trigger inflammation. Other classes of medications include immunomodulators, which help tamp down the immune system’s inflammatory response, and aminosalicylates, which are used to keep the disease in remission.
  • Surgery – If the above treatments are not successful, surgery may be recommended. And depending on the severity of the disease and the state of your overall health, a variety of surgical procedures may be considered. For Crohn’s, surgery may entail removal of the diseased segment of the bowel, with the two ends of the healthy bowel then joined together; while colitis may involve removal of the entire colon and rectum, with the creation of an ileostomy, i.e., an opening in the abdominal wall through which wastes are emptied into a pouch attached to the skin via adhesive.

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