Mild Crohn’s disease tends to cause abdominal pain and diarrhea. With treatment, people can experience remission and reduce the risk of the condition becoming severe.

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This article discusses the specific symptoms of Crohn’s disease, when to speak with a doctor, the diagnostic journey, causes, diagnostic tests, treatment, outlook, and monitoring.

It also shares the personal experiences of Kim Rosas and Karen Soika, a cosmetic surgeon, who both have Crohn’s.

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease — a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — may vary based on the location and severity of the inflammation. Mild symptoms tend to cause pain, especially in the lower abdomen, and diarrhea.

According to a 2016 study, other symptoms can include:

  • ulcers in the mouth or gut
  • gas
  • bloating
  • unintentional weight loss, not exceeding 10% of usual body weight

A 2020 review also suggested that 50% of people with IBD experience fatigue. This may heighten during a flare.

Flare of symptoms

For people with Crohn’s disease, a flare is when symptoms become more pronounced, such as pain and bowel movements. These symptoms can vary from mild and short-lasting effects to more severe and chronic.

A flare can also affect other aspects of a person’s health. For example, it may affect a person’s menstrual cycle, as Kim details below.

Read more about Crohn’s disease in females.

Kim’s story: Common symptoms and flares

“I have loose stools, abdominal pain, and frequent bowel movements with varying urgency. As for exhaustion, I have noticed having far less energy than before my diagnosis. I’m easily worn out and have lost my ability to “rally” the way I could before Crohn’s.

I’ve only had 2–3 flares since my diagnosis. Most of my flares are mild compared to others, lasting 1–2 days. The symptoms are primarily low pain and just miserable because of the time and frequency of being on the toilet.

My worst flares are nothing in comparison to my first prediagnosis experience. It’s hard to even process what I went through compared to my daily life.

Before Crohn’s, I experienced “period poops”; however, what I experience now during some cycles is beyond what I would have considered a regular “period poop” experience, so I’ve taken to calling those [an effect of] a flare.”

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People should consult their doctor if they notice changes in their bowel movements or any of the following signs:

If Crohn’s disease progresses into a more severe condition, a person may experience other severe symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal tract and other parts of the body.

Find out more about the stages of Crohn’s disease.

Generally, symptoms are not specific enough, not constant over time, or the findings of diagnostic studies overlap with other diseases, resulting in a considerable diagnostic delay in people with IBD — especially with Crohn’s.

Kim and Karen’s story: Prediagnosis

Kim: “My diagnosis came after nearly 2 months of extreme intestinal distress, pain, bloody stools, and several visits to my GP and the ER.

It started as “greasy” stools and nighttime abdominal pain. Before this, I was an irregular person who had bowel movements every 1–3 days that were solid. I suddenly had to visit the bathroom at night 3–10 times, passing very small greasy stools. That ramped up in frequency, the pain intensified, urgency increased, and bloody stools came. I made an appointment, and I was initially dismissed and told it could happen to come back if it got worse.

I went to the doctor again, and they ran some blood tests and called in a referral for a gastro[enterologist], but the earliest appointment was a month away.

I was in bed for a week, and my husband was caretaking. It was so bad that I genuinely wanted to stop living because, at that point, we had no diagnosis.

They gave me an IV [drip] because I was dehydrated, and the CAT scan showed obvious signs of colitis.

The ER was able to call in a closer gastrointestinal appointment with another center due to that result. It still took weeks until a true diagnosis. The flare was finally lessening in severity before my colonoscopy, but the [bowel] prep was easy because I still seemed to have an empty stomach.”

Karen: “The doctors always labeled me irritable bowel [syndrome]. I didn’t have irritable bowel. I wasn’t constipated.”

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IBS can be constipation-predominant, diarrhea-predominant, or mixed. As Karen and Kim describe above, people often receive a misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis.

Older research suggests that doctors misdiagnose about 10% of people with IBD, and in 3% of cases, this may persist for 5 or more years.

As highlighted by Kim, there are also the psychological effects of a delayed diagnosis alongside the physical implications of IBD flares. People should discuss concerns with their doctor and ask for specific tests for IBD.

Research from 2017 notes the importance of increasing awareness among physicians and the public regarding common IBD signs to improve the outlook of people with IBD.

Read more about the diagnostic process of IBD.

A medical professional often begins the diagnosis process by asking a person about their symptoms. Doctor’s often complete physical exams of the abdomen, rectum, or other areas to look for lumps or other signs of disease.

Tests used to diagnose Crohn’s disease may include:

Healthcare professionals use imaging tests to diagnose mild, moderate, and severe Crohn’s disease.

The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown.

Doctors often cannot provide a person with a specific cause of Crohn’s but will discuss factors that could have led to its development.

Research from 2022 identified several risk factors:

Additional 2019 research indicates that stress closely correlates with IBD.

Kim and Karen’s story: Possible causes

Kim: “I was undergoing a lot of stress at the time [of the diagnosis]. My guess has always been that stress kickstarted it, but medically I have no support to say that stress was the definitive cause. Until my first flare, I had no other health conditions beyond textbook anxiety.

I do believe stress and travel are my biggest triggers for flare-ups. Predictably, I will flare after any distressing events, either from work or family. As for travel, I took several trips this year, and like clockwork, I would experience a flare in the morning at my new location.”

Karen: “[My symptoms were] usually triggered after eating and [times of] stress. Foods for me are the main triggers, some worse than others, and I can’t narrow it down well.”

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The treatment of mild Crohn’s disease focuses on managing symptoms and assessing risk factors for the likelihood of the condition progressing.

While the disease never fully disappears, 2016 research shows an effective treatment plan can keep the condition in remission and prevent complications.

Medication and testing

Healthcare professionals often recommend budesonide for treating mild Crohn’s disease as they consider it safe for most people. Other medication options are also available to treat IBD that people can discuss with a doctor.

Kim and Karen’s story: Medications

Kim: “After the test results came back as Crohn’s, I received my prescription for Balsalaside Diosodium, which I have been taking for almost 2 years now, 9 pills daily.

I haven’t yet needed to vastly change my diet or switch to biologics.”

Karen: “The only time my colon would feel normal was if I had an infection like bronchitis or a sinus infection and required antibiotics. It was and still is the only time it feels calm.”

Editor’s note: Antibiotics are not a primary treatment for IBD.

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Antibiotics are helpful as a part of a treatment plan for complications of Crohn’s disease, such as abscesses or other infections, but they are not the first-line treatment for Crohn’s symptoms.

Lifestyle and diet

Dietary changes could also help manage the symptoms of mild Crohn’s disease.

According to a 2021 article, some people experience more sensitivity and symptoms after eating certain foods. Consuming a balanced diet and limiting trigger foods could help reduce flare-ups.

Kim and Karen’s story: Lifestyle and self-care

Kim: “I usually treat pain with a heating pad on my abdomen. Before my diagnosis, I was already working from home and continue to do so. I stay home a lot, which helps.

I force myself to attend concerts because those are the things that make me happiest, but it’s still challenging. I suffered to attend most of them because I had to fly to most, but I was YOLOing [you only live once] largely because of my Crohn’s and the uncertainty ahead.”

Karen: “Exercise definitely helps. As foods are the main triggers [for me], it is helpful to narrow it down.”

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People with mild Crohn’s disease will have follow-up appointments with doctors to:

  • monitor disease activity
  • watch for signs of a flare
  • address any changes in symptoms
  • identify possible side effects of treatment

Even people who achieve remission or experience mild Crohn’s disease require regular imaging to verify if the inflammation has cleared.

Crohn’s disease increases the risk for deficiencies and nutrition issues as people often experience a decreased appetite, poor absorption of nutrients, and imbalances in their gut microbiome.

Healthcare professionals will also monitor people with mild Crohn’s for:

People with Crohn’s disease also have an increased risk of developing vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as flu and pneumonia. Healthcare professionals recommend routine vaccinations to reduce the risk of complications.

Kim’s story: Screening

“I have a colonoscopy every 2 years. That means my next appointment and full screening are in a few short months. I’m a huge fan of Su-Tab for prep. I have always struggled to ingest large volumes of liquids (such as for a gestational diabetes test), but I was offered the Su-Tab [sodium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, and potassium chloride] experience for prep, and that was a lifesaver.

Between colonoscopies, they want a yearly blood draw to ensure I’m not anemic, which is common with Crohn’s. I will learn more at my next visit to know how things are going.”

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Read more about bowel preparation for colonoscopy.

Mild Crohn’s disease causes inflammation through the digestive system. At this stage of the disease, symptoms remain less severe and are more easily managed. Symptoms of mild Crohn’s disease include abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Without treatment, mild Crohn’s disease may become more severe and lead to complications. A doctor can help people with mild Crohn’s disease manage their symptoms with a treatment plan.

Individuals with mild Crohn’s disease may experience years of remission and minimal symptoms with effective treatments.