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The Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is on the rise, possibly as a result of chronic inflammation from lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors in our lives. Here are some of the biggest signs you’re dealing with IBD.

Not to be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD is the name of a group of conditions which inflame the digestive system, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The symptoms usually include diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain.

Researchers haven’t pinned down the exact cause of IBD yet but it’s held to be an overreactive immune system which results in chronic inflammation, and this then damages our digestive systems. It’s believed that women and those who take antibiotics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are at higher risk of developing the condition, and it’s worth noting around 5% and 20% of those with inflammatory bowel disease have immediate relatives with the condition. Let’s take a look at some of the major signs and symptoms to watch out for – plus what might happen if IBD is left untreated.

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom of IBD patients, whether they’re suffering from Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. The pain is usually a result of chronic inflammation or even disorders which imitate the symptoms of IBS. Pain affects a whopping 70% of IBD patients and it’s usually located in the abdominal area, and research shows it creates a poor quality of life. The severity of abdominal pain can indicate the severity of a person’s condition as it’s at its worst when acute inflammation is occurring.


In general, diarrhoea is one of the hallmark signs of an IBD condition, with nearly 80% of cases marked by this symptom. One study reported that 77% of people with ulcerative colitis and 82% of people with Crohn's disease had diarrhoea at the time of their diagnosis. The severity of symptoms can be anywhere between mild and extreme, and it’s usually at its worst during flare-ups where inflammation is most prevalent. If it’s the small intestine that’s affected by your condition – usually with Crohn’s disease – you’ll likely have watery diarrhoea, but if the colon is affected in your condition, you may notice other symptoms with diarrhoea, including the following:

  • Your stool may be bloody.
  • You may feel urgency to have a bowel movement or experience incontinence.

These symptoms come down to inflammation, as an inflamed intestine will absorb less water and may even leak fluid, resulting in loose stools. But others with IBD could pin their diarrhoea on their body’s difficulty absorbing fat, sugars and bile, a bacterial infection, a fistula or malabsorption.

Rectal bleeding

As we mentioned above, blood in the stool is a common symptom of IBD, but this isn’t the only source of rectal bleeding. Some may be suffering from anal fissures – these are small sores or tears – which can cause pain and bleeding during a bowel movement. These are more likely to occur in Crohn's disease patients than those with ulcerative colitis, and, for some, anal fissures may be the first sign that something’s wrong.

A few other signs of IBD include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Anaemia
  • Malnutrition and delayed growth in people who develop IBD as children
  • Anxiety and depression

But if IBD is left untreated, more serious symptoms may occur, including any of the following:

  • Abscesses – these are infections that can cause the intestinal wall to tear.
  • Strictures – these are narrowed areas of the bowel.
  • Fistulas – these are passages between two organs which would not normally exist, and are usually the result of inflammation and internal pressure.
  • Chronic inflammation of the colon
  • Stomatitis – this is the inflammation of the mouth, including sores or ulcers
  • Gallstones
  • Kidney stones
  • Erythema nodosum – these are red bumps on the shins that may be painful.
  • Episcleritis – this is the inflammation of the eyes.
  • Spondylosis – this is a stress fracture of the spine.

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