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Crohn’s disease in children and teenagers

Crohn’s disease is a chronic, or long-term, illness. With Crohn’s disease, the intestine, or bowel, becomes inflamed and ulcerated, or marked with sores. Together with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease is one of a group of diseases known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Crohn’s disease usually affects the lower part of the small intestine, which is called the ileum. It can, though, occur in any part of the large or small intestine, stomach, or oesophagus. It can even occur in the mouth. Crohn’s disease can happen at any age. It’s most common, though, in people who are between the ages of 15 and 30. Children and teenagers with Crohn’s disease face unique challenges. Crohn’s disease can stunt growth, weaken bones, and delay puberty.

How does Crohn’s disease affect the bowel?

Crohn's disease can disrupt the normal function of the bowel in a number of ways. The bowel tissue may:

  • Swell, thicken, or form scar tissue, leading to blockage of the passageway inside the bowel
  • Develop ulcers in the deep layers of the bowel wall
  • Lose its ability to absorb nutrients from digested foods (malabsorption)
  • Develop abnormal passageways (fistulas) from one part of the bowel to another or from the bowel to nearby tissues

What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease in children and teenagers?

The symptoms of Crohn's disease depend on where the disease occurs in the bowel. They also depend on its severity. In general, symptoms can include:

  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Feeling of mass or fullness in the lower right abdomen

Children and teenagers with Crohn's disease have periods of severe symptoms followed by periods of no symptoms. The period with no symptoms is called remission, and it can last for weeks or years. There is no way to know when a remission will occur or when symptoms will return.

Other symptoms can develop, depending on complications related to the disease. For instance, a person with a fistula - abnormal passageway - in the rectal area may have pain and discharge around the rectum. Other complications from Crohn’s disease include:

  • Arthritis
  • Gallstones
  • Kidney stones
  • Inflammation (swelling) of the eyes and mouth
  • Liver disease
  • Skin rashes or ulcers

What causes Crohn’s disease in children and teenagers?

The cause of Crohn's disease is not known. It is likely that Crohn's is an inherited disease that causes an abnormal response of the immune system in the gastrointestinal tract.

People who have a relative with Crohn’s disease are 10 times more likely to develop the disease themselves. If the relative is a brother or sister, the risk of getting Crohn’s disease jumps to 30 times more likely. People of Jewish ancestry also have a greater risk for the disease.

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