World IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) Day on May 19 shines a spotlight on two chronic and incurable conditions – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – which are sometimes referred to as “invisible diseases”.

An invisible disease is one that is not easily seen or understood by people who do not have it themselves. People with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis may not look sick to those around them yet sufferers may be dealing with a range of debilitating symptoms, including intense pain, bloody diarrhoea, exhaustion, and malnutrition, as well as symptoms affecting other parts of the body.

While people with IBD may prefer to hide their distressing symptoms from those around them, this can lead to a lack of understanding in the general population. People without the disease may simply be unaware of how debilitating it can be and may not understand the day-to-day struggle of sufferers.

World IBD Day aims to change this by making people more aware of the disease, what it is, how it affects people and why it’s important to get a proper diagnosis.

What is IBD?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease affects around 10 million people worldwide and 300,000 here in the UK. It is the umbrella term for two serious digestive diseases – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease causes inflammation of the digestive system. It can affect any part of the gut but is most common in the colon, which is the last part of the small intestine. It is a chronic (on-going, long-term) condition which may have periods of remission when the symptoms are reduced.

The symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, include:

  • Abdominal pain and diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Anaemia

Scientists are unclear what causes Crohn’s disease but believe it is due to a combination of factors including genetics which may make you more susceptible to the disease, an abnormal reaction of your immune system to some of the bacteria in your gut, and unknown triggers that might include stress, smoking, diet, viruses or environmental factors.

Treatment varies depending on the severity of the condition. It may include anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids, 5ASAs, immunosuppresants and biological drugs. You may be offered antibiotics, or drugs to treat the symptoms of Crohn’s such as antidiarrheals. In some cases surgery may be recommended. Roughly one in five people with the condition will need surgery within five years and one in four within 10 years. Surgical procedures include strictureplasty, resection, limited right hemicolectomy and colectomy with ileostomy.

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and ulceration of the inner lining of the colon and rectum. These ulcers may bleed and cause mucus. Inflammation often begins in the lower colon or rectum but may come to affect the entire colon.

Like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is a chronic (on-going, long-term) condition for which there is no cure. Symptoms may flare up or go into remission, during which you may experience periods of relatively good health, sometimes for extended periods of time.

The symptoms include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling feverish and unwell
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

As with Crohn’s, the exact causes of ulcerative colitis remain unclear but scientists now believe it is due to a mix of genetics, an abnormal reaction in the body to gut bacteria and an unknown trigger which may include bacteria, stress, diet, viruses or other environmental factors.

The normal treatment for ulcerative colitis is medication but if you are not responding to this or your quality of life is significantly affected by the condition you may be offered surgery. A range of surgical procedures are available and your doctor will discuss the most suitable option with you depending on your symptoms and overall state of health.

IBD Diagnosis

The message for both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis is that there is no need to suffer in silence. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described here, it is important to get a diagnosis. Failure to do so not only means you may be suffering unnecessarily but it can lead to serious complications.

You may be offered a range of diagnostic tests, from blood and poo testing to endoscopies which examine the upper part of your digestive system and colonoscopies which examine your colon. You may also be given a CT, ultrasound or MRI scan. Contact us if you are concerned about Inflammatory Bowel Disease or would like more information.