Inflammatory bowel disease can cause symptoms that come and go, sometimes causing severe discomfort, other times imperceptible. Modern tests can help identify the cause of your pain and help you find a solution.

What is inflammatory bowel disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of conditions that involve inflammation in the intestines. While it has long been thought that these disorders are autoimmune, newer research seems to indicate that they may, instead, be the result of the immune system attacking food in the gut or harmless bacteria and viruses.

Types of inflammatory bowel disease

There are a number of types of IBD. Crohn's disease can occur anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract from your mouth to your anus. It usually is most likely to attack the colon, the last part of your small intestine or both.

Ulcerative colitis is a type of IBD that is limited to your colon and rectum.

Microscopic colitis inflames the large intestine and causes watery diarrhea. This disorder may take the form of collagenous colitis or lympocytic colitis.

Pouchitis can develop in people who have had part of their colon removed as part of treatment for ulcerative colitis. When the lining of this pouch becomes inflamed, it is known as pouchitis.

Causes of inflammatory bowel disease

The causes of inflammatory bowel disease are not understood. Many researchers think that it may be an immune system malfunction. The immune system attacks viruses or bacteria, and attacks the cells of the digestive tract at the same time.

Heredity plays a role, as well. People with a family history of IBD are more likely to develop it themselves. However, many people who have IBD do not have a family history of the disease.

In the past, scientists believed that stress and diet were causes of IBD. It is now believed that these factors can aggravate symptoms but do not cause the underlying disorder.

There are a number of risk factors that can make IBD more likely. People who live in urban areas are more likely to develop IBD. Those who smoke are at an increased risk of Crohn's.

Symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease

Symptoms of IBD can range from mild to severe. People may find that they experience phases where symptoms occur, followed by a period of remission. These symptoms can include:

  • abdominal pain and cramping.
  • diarrhea.
  • fever.
  • fatigue.
  • unintended weight loss and reduced appetite.
  • bloody stool.

Inflammatory bowel disease treatment

Many people who have IBD are eventually able to identify foods and drinks that aggravate their symptoms. Avoiding these "trigger foods" can help reduce attacks.

Immune system suppressors or anti-inflammatories may be prescribed. Antibiotics may be helpful during flare-ups that include fever or fistulas.

If lifestyle changes and medication do not provide relief, surgery may be necessary. Surgery may involve removing an affected part of the bowel, then reconnecting healthy sections to one another. People who have Crohn's may need to have surgeries to drain abscesses or close up fistulas.

While these do not cure IBD, they can provide some relief.