Is Crohn’s disease deadly?

Relax—Crohn’s disease is not deadly. But if left untreated, it can result in serious health issues that may put your life at risk.

What is Crohn’s Disease? 

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammation of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which usually affects the end of the small bowel (ileum) and the beginning of the large intestine or colon.

There are several types of Crohn’s disease:

  • Ileocolitis: This is the most common type which affects the end of the small and large intestines. Symptoms include diarrhoea, cramping, abdominal pain, and weight loss.
  • Ileitis: This type affects only the end of the small intestine known as the ileum. It has the same symptoms as ileocolitis. When ileitis becomes severe, it may develop into a fistula in the lower abdomen.
  • Gastroduodenal Crohn’s disease: This type takes its toll on the stomach and the beginning of the small intestine or duodenum. Symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, weight loss, and loss of appetite.
  • Jejunoileitis: In this situation, various inflamed patches occur in the upper half of the small intestine or jejunum. Symptoms include abdominal pain and cramps after eating, diarrhoea, and fistulas in severe cases. 
  • Crohn’s (Granulomatous) Colitis: This type affects only the large intestine or colon. Symptoms include diarrhoea, bleeding in the rectum, an abscess, fistula or ulcer in the anal area, and joint pain. 

What does a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease really mean?

Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease simply means you’ll be living with digestive symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhoea—its two most common symptoms—for a significantly long period of time. Crohn’s is a long-term inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and depending on the type of Crohn’s you may have, you may also experience fatigue, joint pain, ulcers, vomiting, and weight loss.

A diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, while not fatal in and of itself, may lead to critical health conditions if you do not proactively address it. It is worth noting that some of these complications can be deadly. 

What are the possible complications of Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease can lead to several serious complications. Let’s take a look at five of them.

1. Colorectal cancer 

When you’ve had Crohn’s disease for at least eight to 10 years, your risk of developing colorectal cancer becomes higher.

Nonetheless, the majority of individuals with Crohn’s disease don’t develop colorectal cancer. When caught in its early stages, the latter is highly treatable. Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Diarrhoea or constipation which persists for several days
  • Constant urge to make a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Pain or cramping in the abdominal area
  • Dark or bloody stools
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss 

2. Fistulas

When your intestinal wall becomes inflamed due to Crohn’s disease, an abscess will most likely form. A growing abscess can produce a small hole in the intestinal wall, which may develop into a fistula. 

A fistula is an irregular passageway which connects one organ to another. If you have Crohn’s disease, you have a 25% chance of developing a fistula. The most common complications of fistulas are malnutrition or sepsis, which is an inflammatory infection response. 

In general, fistulas contain intestinal bacteria and other infectious substances, so doctors will treat them with antibiotics. Large, multiple, or recurrent fistulas typically require surgery. The symptoms of fistulas include:

  • Recurrent urinary tract infections
  • Dizziness and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Leaking urine from the vagina or leaking feces into the vagina for women

Fistulas that do not respond to medication increase the likelihood of sepsis and require immediate surgery. 

3. Intestinal obstruction

An intestinal obstruction occurs when scar tissue builds up and narrows a section of your colon. It’s the most common complication of Crohn’s disease. 

When you have intestinal obstruction, it’s difficult to pass stool. It may also result in a tear or perforation in your colon, which is life-threatening. If you already have a perforated colon, your doctor will most likely require you to undergo emergency surgery. 

Symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Extreme pain and cramping in the abdomen 
  • Dizziness and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Loud noises originating from the digestive tract

4. Perforated colon

Fistulas, abscesses, and chronic inflammation can weaken parts of your intestinal wall. If any of these persist, the wall can tear or perforate. Consequently, bacteria can leak from your intestine and seep into your abdomen. If left untreated, it can lead to sepsis or blood poisoning. 

Symptoms of a perforated colon include: 

  • Intense abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Chills

5. Toxic megacolon

Toxic megacolon begins when inflammation makes your colon expand to a point where it cannot contract anymore. Consequently, gas buildup will occur. This buildup can make your colon burst and eventually leak bacteria and toxins into your bloodstream. It can result in life-threatening conditions such as sepsis, shock, and internal bleeding. 

While individuals with ulcerative colitis have a higher risk of developing toxic megacolon, those with Crohn’s disease can also develop it.  

Symptoms of toxic megacolon include:

  • Swollen and painful abdomen
  • Persistent and bloody diarrhoea
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Fast heart rate 

Can I avoid getting Crohn’s disease?

Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease can be hereditary. Between 5 and 20 percent of individuals with IBD actually have a parent, child, brother, or sister who has it. However, it’s impossible to predict a person’s chances of acquiring Crohn’s disease based on family history alone. 

A malfunctioning immune system may also increase your risk of developing Crohn’s disease. When your immune system tries to fight a certain virus or bacteria, it may result in an abnormal immune response which weakens cells in your digestive tract. 

While Crohn’s disease can strike at any age, it commonly affects individuals between 20 and 30 years of age. Cigarette smoking and consumption of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and diclofenac sodium) are also risk factors. Avoiding or quitting smoking and lessening your consumption of these medications may help reduce your chances of having it.

Need our help?

Looking for professional dietary advice to help you manage your Crohn’s disease? Call (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm on weekdays to schedule an appointment with one of our accredited dietitians or nutritionists. We can help you formulate a nutrition plan that will complement your doctor’s prescribed course of treatment for your condition. Alternatively, you can send us an enquiry or check out our other gut and bowel health services.