Health Advice



Harvard Health: Living with Crohn’s disease: Recognizing and managing flares

By John Garber, M.D., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory condition that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Together with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s is one of the two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Crohn’s affects approximately 500,000 Americans and is a chronic, lifelong condition that typically alternates between periods of relatively stable or absent symptoms (remission) and periods of symptom flare-ups that can last for days, weeks or even months.

The goal of treatment is to induce remission and then to maximize the chance that patients stay in remission. However, almost everyone with Crohn’s disease will experience a flare-up at some point. If you have Crohn’s disease, it is important to understand what you can do to reduce the risk of a flare, to recognize symptoms of a flare, and to manage flares when they do happen.

Tracking symptoms helps recognize Crohn’s disease flares early

Flare-ups can be triggered by a variety of factors including changes in diet, new medications, infections and antibiotics, stress, and changes in the underlying disease itself. In some cases a specific trigger can be identified, but in many cases the trigger remains unknown.

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease can vary widely. Some people primarily have abdominal pain and diarrhea, while others may have lack of appetite, nausea, or abdominal distension, and still others may have less specific symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, mouth ulcers, or eye symptoms.

The key is to have a good sense of your baseline symptoms at remission, and how your Crohn’s disease manifests when it is more active. A number of smartphone apps, including Oshi: IBD tracker and myColitis, can help patients better monitor their condition, prompting you to track things like bowel movements, symptoms and medications. The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation has developed an easy-to-use symptom tracker. These types of records can help you provide your gastroenterologist with a more complete picture of your disease activity between office visits.


Contact your doctor at the first sign of a flare

You should contact your doctor if you think you are experiencing a flare so he or she can test to see if the flare is due to an infection, or determine if any new medications or exposures, such as recent antibiotics, might have triggered the flare. In the absence of infection or another reversible cause of the flare, your gastroenterologist may recommend a treatment course of corticosteroids, either topical (applied to the lower colon through enemas or suppositories) or systemic (body-wide).

Symptom flares can also indicate a change in your body’s response to your current treatment. For example, each year a portion of patients who take either immunomodulator or biologic medications such as infliximab (Remicade) or adalimumab (Humira) stop responding to their medication. Sometimes a major symptom flare can signify that these medications are no longer working. Your doctor can perform tests to confirm if this is the case and, if necessary, switch you to a different medication.

Dietary and lifestyle changes can help manage Crohn’s disease flares


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