Can Inflammatory Bowel Disease Be Fatal?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis—is a chronic, lifelong condition. In many cases, IBD and its complications can be managed with treatments that include medication and surgery. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are not generally thought of as fatal conditions. However, that doesn't mean that people with IBD never die from IBD-related causes, it just means that it is not common.

While this is a scary topic, it's important to remember that treatments for IBD are constantly improving. Stopping inflammation and preventing flare-ups is the ultimate goal in IBD treatment, and can help prevent complications. Keeping up with regular doctor's appointments and taking care of health problems that crop up—even if they seem unrelated to the IBD—is also going to be an important part of staying as healthy as possible.

Common Symptoms of IBD
 Verywell / Brooke Pelczynski

IBD and an Increased Risk of Death

People with IBD do have a greater risk of death than the general population (people that do not have IBD). This is perhaps not surprising, but it can be a bit confusing. There are a great many reasons someone with IBD might die: complications from surgery, a reaction to the medication, developing a serious related condition (such as liver disease or toxic megacolon), or from a completely unrelated condition. In some cases, it's unknown if a person's IBD actually contributed to their death or not.

What the Research Says

There have been several studies that have looked at the cause of death in people who have IBD. One study of 692 patients in Minnesota found that the overall life expectancy of people with IBD was "similar" to those who do not have IBD. For those with Crohn's disease, the cause of death from gastrointestinal disorders and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were more common than in the general public. The authors insist that stopping smoking is crucial for people with Crohn's disease to avoid serious complications.

Research has shown that smokers with Crohn's disease who quit and remain smoke-free for more than a year have fewer symptom flares and a reduced need for steroid or immunosuppressive drugs.

For people with ulcerative colitis, there was actually a decrease in the deaths from cardiovascular disease. The authors explain that this could be from a low incidence of smoking in ulcerative colitis patients and low levels of sodium and water in the body due to ileostomy or extensive colitis.

A second study in England showed that most deaths occurred in the first year after diagnosis, yet most of those deaths were not from IBD, but from some other cause. A severe first flare-up of Crohn's disease in the colon or the perianal area was also correlated with increased mortality. The authors also point out that older patients who are recently diagnosed with IBD may be at increased risk of dying.

One large study from Manitoba was found that people with IBD had an increased risk of death particularly after having surgery and in the first year after diagnosis. 

A Word From Verywell

Overall, the IBDs are not generally fatal conditions, but they are serious diseases. While death from IBD is uncommon, it is still important to seek treatment and develop an overall healthy lifestyle. People living with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are particularly susceptible to complications, and the first year of diagnosis and the year after surgery are vulnerable times. While this is sobering information, the good news is that surgical techniques and treatments for IBD are constantly improving. People with IBD who are concerned about their life expectancy should talk with their gastroenterologist about how to reduce the risk of complications by receiving regular care and screenings.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hovde Ø1, Kempski-Monstad I, Småstuen MC, et al. "Mortality and causes of death in Crohn's disease: results from 20 years of follow-up in the IBSEN study." Gut. 2014;63:771-775. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2013-304766.

  2. Duricova D, Pedersen N, Elkjaer M, et al. "Overall and cause-specific mortality in Crohn’s disease: a meta-analysis of population-based studies." Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2010;16:347-353. DOI: 10.1002/ibd.21007.

  3. Jess T, Loftus EV Jr, Harmsen WS, et al. "Survival and cause specific mortality in patients with inflammatory bowel disease: a long term outcome study in Olmsted County, Minnesota, 1940-2004." Gut. 2006. Sep 55:1248-1254. DOI:10.1136/gut.2005.079350.

  4. Farrokhyar F, Swarbrick ET, Grace RH, Hellier MD, Gent AE, Irvine EJ. Low mortality in ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease in three regional centers in England. Am J Gastroenterol. 2001;96:501-507.

Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.