Crohn’s disease is a chronic, or ongoing, inflammation of the small intestine and, less commonly, of the colon. As with many chronic illnesses, the symptoms come and go depending on factors like level of stress, diet, and medications. People can develop this illness throughout the lifespan, but it is most commonly diagnosed in adults between the ages of 20 and 30.
Crohns in children, however, is diagnosed in around 30 percent of the total cases. It can be both a physically and emotionally challenging disease to manage. On the physical side, kids with Crohns often experience significant abdominal pain, diarrhea, delayed growth and puberty, and weak bones.
On the emotional side, most children and teens don’t like to discuss private matters like bowel movements and the urgency to defecate. Parents should always talk to the child’s teacher about the condition so that there are no humiliating incidents like the child being refused a bathroom pass. Many children and teens also feel resentful that they can’t eat the same foods as their friends and that, due to weakened bones, they cannot play the games they used to enjoy.
The child’s peer group may also make things more difficult by teasing the child, especially if he or she has “accidents” in class or on the playground. It may help to have a member of the child’s care team speak to the class and explain the disease.
What Causes Crohn's Disease in Children?
Many people still tend to blame a poor diet or a high level of stress for Crohn's. While it is true that being stressed out and eating the wrong food may make a child feel worse, especially if they trigger a “flare up,” stress and poor diet do not cause the disease.
Instead, researchers have linked the disease with an abnormal immune response. They have also found that 15 percent to 20 percent of cases—especially cases involving children and teens—can be accounted for by genetics.
Keeping It Under Control
Because so many parts of a child’s life are affected by a Crohn’s diagnosis, it is important to put together a treatment team that can address all of the child’s needs. This team could include a specialist, a nurse practitioner, a social worker, a special teacher who helps kids that can’t make it to school, and rehabilitation specialists to help avoid debilitating weakness during a flare up.
There is not one special diet that all children with Crohns must eat, but it does help to keep track of and avoid any foods that make the symptoms worse. In addition, foods that are difficult to digest like seeds, nuts, and kernels of corn are probably best avoided.
The treatment team will also recommend that you encourage your child to be as active as safely possible to counter the weakening effects of the disease.
Are medications recommended?
There are several medications that can be given to manage Crohns in children from an aspirin-like drug that reduces inflammation all the way up to powerful corticosteroids and immunomodulators. The rule of thumb in treating children is to control symptoms using the smallest doses of the drugs with the least amount of side effects.
Talk to your doctor about dietary and lifestyle modifications as well as alternative health options to avoid the potential side effects that medications can potentially cause.
Crohns is not a diagnosis that any parent or child wants to hear. There is no cure, but with prompt medical intervention you can control the symptoms and maintain a normal life for your child.