What Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of disorders that involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The digestive tract consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. IBD is painful and can be a debilitating disease. Although rare, life-threatening complications can develop from IBD. An estimated 1.6 million people in the United States have IBD.


Inflammatory bowel disease is categorized into two main types:

  • Ulcerative colitis involves ulcers and inflammation along the lining of the large intestine (colon) and the rectum.
  • Crohn’s disease Crohn’s disease involves inflammation in the lining of any part of the digestive tract; however, it most commonly affects the tail end of the small intestine and often spreads deep within the affected bowel tissue.


Inflammation severity and the affected areas of IBD varies. Symptoms range from mild to severe and are typically followed by periods of remission. Common IBD symptoms include the following:

  • Abdominal cramps, pain or bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding ulcers
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in or with stool (hematochezia)
  • Urgent need to empty the bowels
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Anemia (due to blood loss)
  • Fatigue
  • Anal fissures
  • Ulcers around the anus or genitals
  • Canker sores in the mouth (Crohn’s disease)


The exact cause of inflammatory bowel disease is unknown. Although stress and diet were once thought to be causes of the disease, they are now known to aggravate the disease but not cause it. One possible cause may be an abnormal immune response that occurs when the immune system attempts to fight off a virus or bacterium and mistakenly attacks the digestive tract, too. A combination of genetic and environmental factors may also play a part in the development of IBD.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease include the following:

  • Family history
    The risk of developing IBD increases when family members, especially close relatives, have the disease.
  • Age
    IBD is typically diagnosed prior to the age of 30; however, it is sometimes diagnosed in people in their 50s and 60s.
  • Cigarette smoking
    Smoking cigarettes is the most controllable risk factor associated with the development of Crohn’s disease; however, ulcerative colitis is more common in nonsmokers or ex-smokers.
  • Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication
    The use of ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or diclofenac sodium increases the risk of developing IBD. These medications can also worsen symptoms of IBD.
  • Environmental factors
    People living in urban areas and industrialized countries are at higher risk of developing IBD. Individuals living in cold northern climates also have an increased risk of developing IBD.
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