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Crohn’s disease is a type of chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. The immune system is believed to be the most likely cause of Crohn’s disease, in that it attacks the body’s intestinal tissue. Crohn’s disease differs from another type of IBD, ulcerative colitis (UC), in that UC most commonly affects the end of the small bowel (the ileum) and the beginning of the colon. However, Crohn’s disease may affect any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, from the mouth to the anus.
Crohn’s disease affects as many as 700,000 Americans. Men and women are equally affected and the disease can strike at any age, though it is more prevalent among adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. Since Crohn’s is a chronic disease, people with Crohn’s tend to experience flare-ups followed by periods of remission in which they may not notice any symptoms.
While diet and stress have been implicated in the past, today we know that they are not the cause of Crohn’s disease. The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, but research suggests that malfunction of the immune system, heredity, genetics and environmental factors can all play a role. It is believed that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells of the digestive tract as if they are foreign invaders, damaging the intestinal walls. This immune response may be caused by the body’s own tissue or a combination of bacteria, viruses or antigens.
Crohn’s disease also seems to run in families – it is more common in those who have relatives with the disease. Studies have shown that up to 20 percent of affected individuals have a first degree relative with some type of IBD; however, most people with IBD do not have a family history of the disease. Crohn’s disease is most commonly seen in people of eastern European decent. In recent years, an increasing number of cases have been reported in African Americans.
Cigarette smoking is the most important controllable risk factor for Crohn’s disease. If you have Crohn’s disease, smoking can cause you to develop more severe disease and increase your risk of needing surgery due to Crohn’s.