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June 3, 2024

Understanding Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Signs, Symptoms, and When to Seek Care

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a term that encompasses a group of autoimmune diseases characterized by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The two primary types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While both conditions involve long-term inflammation in the gut, they affect different parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and have distinct features. Understanding IBD, recognizing its symptoms, and knowing when and how to seek medical care are crucial for managing this challenging condition effectively.

What is IBD?

IBD is an autoimmune condition, meaning the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This immune response causes inflammation that can lead to various symptoms and complications. The two main types of IBD are:

  1. Crohn’s Disease: This condition can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus, but it most commonly affects the end of the small intestine (ileum) and the beginning of the colon. In Crohn’s disease, inflammation can penetrate multiple layers of the bowel wall.
  2. Ulcerative Colitis: This condition is limited to the colon (large intestine) and rectum. Inflammation in ulcerative colitis typically starts in the rectum and extends proximally in a continuous manner, affecting only the innermost lining of the colon.

Common Symptoms of IBD

Symptoms of IBD can vary depending on the severity and location of inflammation, but common signs include:

  • Abdominal Pain and Cramping: Persistent abdominal pain is a hallmark symptom. The pain can range from mild discomfort to severe cramping.
  • Diarrhea or constipation: Frequent, urgent, and sometimes bloody stools are common, especially in ulcerative colitis. But depending on the person, IBD can cause diarrhea or constipation.
  • Fatigue: Chronic inflammation and nutrient malabsorption can lead to significant fatigue.
  • Weight Loss: Unintended weight loss due to poor nutrient absorption and decreased appetite.
  • Fever: Low-grade fevers are common during flare-ups.
  • Rectal Bleeding: Passage of blood with stools, more common in ulcerative colitis.
  • Reduced Appetite: Ongoing discomfort and pain can reduce the desire to eat.
  • Urgency to Defecate: A frequent and urgent need to pass stools.

How to Know if You Have IBD

If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above persistently, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional. IBD can mimic other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or infections, so accurate diagnosis is essential. The diagnostic process typically includes:

Medical History and Physical Examination: The doctor will take a detailed medical history and perform a physical examination to identify any signs of IBD.

Laboratory Tests: Blood tests can reveal signs of inflammation, anemia, or infection. Stool tests can detect blood or infectious agents.

Endoscopic Procedures:

  • Colonoscopy: A procedure where a long, flexible tube with a camera (colonoscope) is used to view the inside of the colon and rectum. It helps in identifying inflammation, ulcers, and bleeding.
  • Upper Endoscopy: This may be performed if symptoms suggest involvement of the upper GI tract.
  • Biopsy: During endoscopic procedures, small tissue samples (biopsies) are taken from the GI tract for microscopic examination.

Imaging Studies:

  • CT Scan or MRI: These imaging techniques provide detailed images of the intestines and help in assessing the extent of inflammation and detecting complications like abscesses or fistulas.

When to Seek Care

Early diagnosis and treatment of IBD are critical to managing the disease effectively and preventing complications. Seek medical care if you experience:

  • Persistent abdominal pain and cramping
  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation
  • Blood in your stool. This may appear bright red or make stool look black and tarry depending on where the blood is originating from
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent fever
  • Severe fatigue that interferes with daily activities
  • Noticeable changes in bowel habits lasting more than a few weeks

Who to Seek Care From

Managing IBD often requires a multidisciplinary approach. Healthcare professionals involved in the care of IBD patients include:

  1. Primary Care Physicians: They can provide initial evaluation, management of mild symptoms, and referrals to specialists.
  2. Gastroenterologists: Specialists in digestive diseases who play a central role in diagnosing and managing IBD. They perform endoscopic procedures and develop treatment plans. Ask your PCP for a referral to a Gastroenterologist in your area.
  3. Dietitians: Dietitians can help to discuss dietary options for management of IBD and IBD symptoms as well as address nutritional deficiencies that are common in IBD.
  4. Mental Health Professionals: Chronic illness and GI symptoms can impact mental health and quality of life, making support from psychologists or counselors beneficial. Stress can also play a role in GI symptoms, so managing mental health can have great impacts on GI health as well.
  5. Surgeons: In severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to remove damaged portions of the GI tract or treat complications.

Treatment Options for IBD

Treatment for IBD aims to reduce inflammation, manage symptoms, and achieve and maintain remission. Treatment options include:


  • Aminosalicylates: Anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat mild to moderate symptoms, especially in ulcerative colitis.
  • Corticosteroids: Used for short-term control of flare-ups due to their powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Immunomodulators: Medications that modulate the immune response to reduce inflammation.
  • Biologics: Targeted therapies that block specific pathways involved in inflammation. They are used for moderate to severe IBD.
  • Antibiotics: Used to treat or prevent infections, especially in Crohn’s disease with complications like abscesses.

Lifestyle and Dietary Changes

There is no single diet that has been shown to be most effective for managing IBD symptoms for all patients, but there are several dietary options available that may offer some relief in managing symptoms. Your dietitian will be able to help identify which dietary approach may be best for you.

  • Identifying and avoiding trigger foods that worsen symptoms.
  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals.Staying hydrated, especially during diarrhea episodes.
  • Optimizing gut health by incorporating a variety of high fiber plant foods. It may also be necessary to avoid those high fiber or high roughage foods during flare ups to reduce bowel irritation.


  • Surgery may involve removing damaged sections of the GI tract or draining abscesses, or removal of the colon in the most severe cases

Psychological Support

Managing stress and mental health through therapy, support groups, or stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness and yoga.

Living with IBD can be challenging, but with proper medical care, lifestyle adjustments, and support, many individuals lead fulfilling lives. Early recognition of symptoms and timely medical intervention are key to managing the disease effectively. If you suspect you have IBD or are experiencing symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice. Join our virtual support group on July 24th to connect with others, gain insights, and learn more about managing IBD.

Join Our Free Virtual Support Group

We invite you to join our free virtual support group on July 24th from 6:00 -7:00 pm to discuss IBD with a gastrenterologist, share your own experiences, and receive support from peers and experts. This is a valuable opportunity to connect with others who understand what you’re going through and to learn more about managing IBD effectively. Register now and take a step towards better health and community support!

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