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Upset Stomach or Crohn's Disease?

September 18, 2018
Published in: Gastroenterology

Woman holding her stomach in pain

The stomach is a fascinating organ that helps keeps our bodies nourished and healthy. This powerhouse organ breaks down food by secreting acid and enzymes. It contracts to digest food so the small intestines can absorb the nutrients. Your stomach also stands guard against harmful things like bacteria, parasites, or spoiled food. Problems with the stomach can arise for a variety of reasons and range from mild irritations to life-threatening conditions. One of the more serious gastrointestinal diseases is Crohn’s disease. Because Crohn’s disease symptoms can be confused with a regular upset stomach, it’s important to understand the differences between the two.

Understanding the Upset Stomach

Illustration of organs inside the abdomenWe’ve all felt the uncomfortable symptoms of an upset stomach – abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. Sometimes an upset stomach is caused by a parasite, bacteria, or virus. An upset stomach can also follow overindulgence in fatty foods, alcohol, or caffeine. For some, allergic reactions to certain foods can cause an upset stomach. In these instances, inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines occurs followed by a short period of stomach upset. In fact, a normal upset stomach often subsides within a few days and doesn't require a doctor’s visit.

Crossing Over to Crohn’s Disease

Unlike an upset stomach, Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel condition. The inflammation can go beyond just the stomach and involve other parts of the gastrointestinal tract like the small intestines, mouth, esophagus, colon, and anus. With Crohn’s disease, the inflammation goes deep into the bowel tissue. This can lead to debilitating pain and even death if left untreated. Symptoms and severity vary from patient to patient but often include a combination of:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Anemia
  • Blood in your stool
  • Mouth sores
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Pain or drainage near or around the anus
  • Joint pain

If these symptoms are persistent, seek medical attention. Most likely a combination of physical exam, blood tests, stool tests, and possibly a colonoscopy, endoscopy, or biopsy will be used to diagnose Crohn’s disease. It’s important not to delay seeing your doctor if you suspect you could have Crohn’s disease. Life-threatening complications can occur if left untreated.

Risk Factors for Crohn’s Disease

The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, but certain risk factors have been identified. These include:

  • Age: Crohn’s disease can affect anyone of any age, but is mostly diagnosed in younger patients around thirty years of age.
  • Family History: While not always associated with family history, approximately 1 in 5 people with Crohn’s disease also have a close relative with it as well.
  • Habits: Cigarette smokers have an increased risk for developing Crohn’s disease and experiencing more severe symptoms and complications.
  • Geography: Interestingly, people living in urban areas have a higher risk of developing Crohn’s disease. Environmental triggers and access to more processed foods are possible factors that exasperate Crohn’s disease.

Almost everyone will experience an occasional upset stomach as a symptom of poor diet, bacteria, or a virus. While the symptoms are uncomfortable they are usually not disruptive for more than a few days. However, for people with Crohn's disease, the gastrointestinal tract can become so inflamed that it can cause severe symptoms. It's important to seek medical care if you are experiencing symptoms that go beyond a normal upset stomach. If you have questions or concerns, contact your primary care provider or the Augusta Health Gastroenterology team.