Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Its incidence and the increased risk of other conditions or complications are different in males and females. Although symptoms and treatment may vary, these differ for each individual, rather than across age or gender.

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Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. It affects approximately 780,000 Americans.

Although IBD incidence varies with age and gender, symptoms differ among individuals based on where the inflammation occurs. Some people may experience milder effects, while others have severe symptoms.

Read this article to learn more about the onset of Crohn’s disease, symptoms, common causes, conditions associated with it, and ways to treat and manage IBD.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Research suggests that Crohn’s disease has a peak prevalence in 30–39 and affects genders differently based on population.

For example, in Canada and New Zealand, females are 10–30% more likely to acquire the condition, while in Japan and Korea, males are up to three times more likely to develop Crohn’s disease.

Further research suggests that females have a lower risk of Crohn’s disease than males during childhood, until the age range of 10–14 years. Females have a higher risk after age 14. Males may be more likely to develop Crohn’s at a younger age than a person who is older.

In addition, males may be at more risk of developing ulcerative colitis, another form of IBD, than females.

Read more from our IBD hub.

Since Crohn’s disease can affect both genders, the symptoms generally present the same across males and females.

Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease include:

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation developed a symptom tracker that individuals can fill out and share with their doctor. This tracker can better help them understand how this disease affects them.

By keeping track of symptoms and triggers, individuals can work with their doctor to develop a treatment plan that may better help them manage the condition.

Read more about Crohn’s disease symptoms here.

Individuals may experience flare-ups or a relapse, where symptoms of the condition are active and range in severity. Flare-ups may last from a few days to weeks or months. A person should consult their gastroenterologist or IBD nurse to discuss managing these.

Between flare-ups, individuals may be in remission and not experience any symptoms.

People who are experiencing severe symptoms or symptoms lasting longer than a few weeks should consult their specialist doctor for medical assistance.

A prolonged flare-up can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life and can lead to additional problems in the gut. These include intestinal strictures.

Doctors characterize strictures as uncontrolled inflammation where the diameter of the intestine narrows. They may treat this type of inflammation with anti-inflammatory medications.

However, if the inflammation is ongoing, scar tissue starts forming, requiring procedures (surgical or endoscopic). Anti-inflammatories will not have as much effect on scar tissue.

Strictures can result in blockages referred to as bowel obstruction or fistulous tracts.

Read about how to recognize a flare-up here.

At present, there is insufficient research investigating differences in complications of Crohn’s disease in males and females.

However, other complications of Crohn’s disease symptoms and flare-ups include:

In rare cases, perforation of the bowel may occur during a severe flare-up. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting. In some cases, the leak will form an abscess. A person must consult a doctor or visit an emergency room as this could be life threatening.

The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is not fully known.

However, scientists have made major advances over the past few years, particularly in the role of genetics.

Research from 2021 associated more than 100 genes with IBD, meaning genetics may play a crucial part in causing Crohn’s disease.

Researchers believe that Crohn’s also correlates to a combination of environmental factors, such as:

Scientists are still investigating whether any factors may influence the risk of males getting this disease more than females.

Individuals with Crohn’s disease are at a higher risk of developing other conditions. The complications include:

Other conditions may differ across males and females. Males are more likely to develop the following:

Sexual dysfunction

While there is limited research on this topic, a 2019 study showed that 39% of males reported having some form of sexual dysfunction. 94% of males newly diagnosed with IBD reported erectile dysfunction.

A recent review from 2021 showed that males with IBD felt sexually compromised due to active disease and had a lower sexual desire.

Many factors can influence the decrease in sexual desire among IBD patients, including:

  • fatigue
  • fear of incontinence
  • depression

A person may wish to speak with a doctor to discuss ways to improve sexual function.

Infertility

Active Crohn’s disease appears to affect male reproductivity.

Research also associates inflammation with elevated levels of oxidative stress. These levels may have a negative effect on male fertility.

Due to insufficient data, researchers have yet to draw definitive conclusions regarding the effects of IBD medications, including corticosteroids to help reduce inflammation, on male fertility.

Doctors may explore other IBD medications or fertility options for males, where possible.

Bone health

According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, approximately 30–60% of people with Crohn’s disease have lower than average bone density. In some people, this will cause osteoporosis (weaker joints), while osteopenia (low bone density) or osteomalacia (softening of the bones) may occur. These conditions are often more common in females than in males.

However, low bone density can affect people with IBD at any age.

Doctors may also use steroid treatment, but this drug can contribute to bone loss. Steroids lower the rate that bone-building cells work.

A person may also absorb less calcium due to the medications they take. Inflammation also damages the intestinal lining, interfering with the organ’s ability to absorb nutrients properly.

To help with lower levels of calcium or other nutrients, a person may take supplements.

Read more about bone health.

Prostate cancer

If a male has Crohn’s disease, it may increase the risk of prostate cancer. This risk could be because the body is in a chronic state of inflammation.

There is also evidence that the body’s inflammatory response and IBD treatment increase the risk of other extraintestinal tumors, such as skin and hematopoietic disorders.

A male should ensure they attend prostate exams and tests to help detect and treat this type of cancer in its early stages. A person should speak with a doctor to discuss any concerns.

At present, Medicare covers an annual prostate-specific antigen test for males age 50 and older.

Read more about Medicare from our dedicated hub.

Rare liver disease

Males with chronic Crohn’s are more likely than females to develop a type of liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC).

Although rare, PSC can lead to other hepatic (liver) related issues such as:

If a person has any concerns or questions, they can speak to their doctor about liver function testing.

At present, there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, but people can manage IBD with treatment options that help reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups and symptoms. This management of Crohn’s tends to apply to both males and females, including:

Medications

There are several types of medications available to help treat Crohn’s disease, such as:

Biologics is another type of treatment available for people with Crohn’s disease. It helps reduce the body’s immune response by targeting proteins that lead to inflammation. Examples are antitumor necrosis factor agents, such as infliximab (Remicade) and adalimumab (Humira).

Individuals can also speak with their doctor to see if alternative medications are available to help treat their symptoms.

Some prescribed medications may have side effects and require close monitoring, such as blood tests and follow-up visits with an IBD nurse.

Read more about treatment options here.

Lifestyle changes

Some lifestyle habits and choices can also help minimize symptoms.

Dietary choices

Some foods can trigger flare-ups in Crohn’s, including:

Individuals with this condition may benefit from keeping a food journal to document what they ate and how that food made them feel. A journal may help them identify what foods cause flare-ups.

An appointment with a registered dietitian can also help determine what foods to avoid and what foods to consume to minimize symptoms specific to that person.

Surgery

Many people with Crohn’s disease may need surgery to relieve symptoms that have not responded to medication.

Doctors most often recommend surgery to treat the following complications:

  • fistulas
  • bleeding that is life threatening
  • intestinal obstructions
  • side effects from medicines when they threaten health

A person may need a colectomy, in which a surgeon removes the whole colon or large intestine.

Alternatively, doctors may suggest removing part of the small intestine in small bowel resection surgery. Removing part of the intestine can help, but it does not cure Crohn’s disease.

Surgery is not an option for everyone, but it may be a suitable treatment in severe cases of Crohn’s.

Read more about the surgical treatments for Crohn’s disease here.

Individuals with Crohn’s disease may be able to recognize symptoms they experience due to certain foods and environmental triggers, which may help minimize the risk of a flare-up. If a person cannot identify the triggers, a doctor will develop a strategy to help reduce the frequency and severity of flare-ups and associated symptoms.

A person can consult a doctor to explore IBD medications’ benefits and more serious risks. Doctors advise that flares may occur when people do not take medications as prescribed.

However, if people take their medications as prescribed and still experience flares, they should speak with their doctor. They may suggest changing the dose or type of medication to help manage IBD.

Even if a person does not experience side effects or symptoms (in remission), taking the prescribed medication is important for managing Crohn’s and long-term effects.

At present, there is little research that differentiates how Crohn’s disease affects males and females differently.

However, any individual experiencing symptoms that may be linked to Crohn’s disease should speak with their doctor.

Once a person has a diagnosis, they can start managing their symptoms and preventing the severity and frequency of flare-ups to help improve their quality of life.

A male with Crohn’s disease may have an increased risk of fertility, liver, and prostate issues. However, they can speak with a doctor to ensure they manage Crohn’s and other conditions effectively.