How Crohn’s Disease Affects Children

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Crohn's disease is a recurring inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This inflammation causes stomach pain, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and difficulty absorbing nutrients from food.

Though Crohn's disease is more common in adults, the condition is increasing within the pediatric population. It affects about 10 out of every 100,000 children in the United States.

This article explores Crohn's disease in children and reviews its symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment options.

Child with stomach ache, sitting with Mom

Imgorthand / Getty Images

What Is Crohn’s Disease? 

Crohn's disease is a chronic autoimmune disease of the GI tract that causes inflammation. The disease is one of several inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).

Inflammation from Crohn's disease can occur anywhere along the GI tract, between the mouth and anus. However, it does not affect every part of the tract. There are healthy portions in between inflamed areas of the bowel.

There are five types of Crohn's disease. The type is based on where the inflammation occurs along the digestive tract, including:

  • Ileocolitis: The most common type of Crohn's disease, ileocolitis affects the small intestine and large intestine (colon).
  • Ileitis: Ileitis affects only the ileum, which is the end of the small intestine.
  • Gastroduodenal: This type affects the stomach and the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine).
  • Jejunodeitis: This affects the jejunum, the upper part of the small intestine.
  • Granulomatous: Granulomatous affects the colon and is also known as Crohn's colitis.

A Lifelong Illness

At this time, there is no cure for Crohn's disease. It is a chronic, lifelong disease that alters between flare-ups, times when symptoms increase, and periods of remission.

Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease in Children 

The most common symptoms that children diagnosed with Crohn's disease experience are:

  • Diarrhea, including episodes of watery diarrhea
  • Blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Little desire to eat

Other symptoms that children may experience include:

  • Urgency to have a bowel movement
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Exhaustion
  • Malnutrition
  • Fever and chills
  • Blood in the stool

In some cases, the loss of appetite results in a reduced caloric intake and slow weight gain during childhood or adolescence. In severe cases of malnutrition, some children might grow more slowly than their friends or puberty may be delayed.

Anemia

When bleeding is present in a bowel movement, anemia may develop. Anemia occurs when there are not enough healthy red blood cells in the body to transport oxygen. It can result from chronic, slow bleeding. In some cases, children may not even know there is blood in their stool. Speak with your pediatrician if your child is experiencing any ongoing symptoms.

About 30% of children with Crohn's disease develop perianal disease, which is inflammation around the anus. This can be made worse by frequent bouts of diarrhea and cause tears or abscesses in the surrounding areas.

In very rare cases, children can develop Crohn's symptoms in areas outside of the GI tract. About 40% of children develop lesions, canker sores, or swelling in the mouth at some point.

Obstruction of the Bowel

Children can experience inflammation that causes scar tissue in the lining of the GI tract. This can cause a narrowing and prevent food from passing normally through the intestine. The narrowing is called an "obstruction" and requires medical treatment. If left untreated, an obstruction can be life-threatening.

Not every child with Crohn's disease experiences the same symptoms or severity of symptoms. In many cases, Crohn's will go through periods of remission and then return periodically.

Trauma, stress, or illness can trigger a flare-up. However, in many cases, symptoms can return for no unidentifiable reason.

If a child is experiencing Crohn's symptoms, speak with your pediatrician to understand their symptoms and develop a treatment plan.

Causes of Crohn’s Disease in Children 

The exact cause of Crohn's disease is unknown.

However, it is suspected that there is a genetic component. Crohn's disease can be hereditary, meaning it is passed down through families, and there are a number of gene mutations associated with Crohn's disease.

Crohn's could also be caused by a virus or bacteria that attacks the immune system. Some children with Crohn's disease have other immune system issues as well.

Who Is at Risk for Crohn's Disease?

It is not possible to predict who will get Crohn's disease.

The disease appears to affect boys and girls under the age of 17 equally, although there is some data to suggest boys may have a higher risk of developing Crohn's. One study found that girls appeared to develop more severe flare-ups, while boys were at a higher risk for developing growth failure.

Crohn's disease can affect people of all ages, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s.

Children and teenagers may be at higher risk of Crohn's disease if:

  • They are white.
  • They smoke.
  • They have a family history of Crohn's disease.
  • They live in developed countries, in cities, and in northern climates.

How Is Crohn’s Disease in Children Diagnosed? 

Your pediatrician or other healthcare provider will conduct a physical exam and review your child’s medical history and symptoms. A doctor will use several different types of tests to diagnose Crohn's disease.

Noninvasive testing for Crohn's disease includes:

Invasive diagnostic testing within the GI tract might include:

  • Endoscopy (a nonsurgical procedure using a flexible tube with a light and camera to examine the GI tract)
  • Colonoscopy (a nonsurgical procedure using a long, flexible tube to explore the large intestine)
  • Biopsy (removing a sample of tissue for further examination in a lab)
  • Barium swallow, or esophagram (an imaging test to examine the upper GI tract)
  • Capsule endoscopy (procedure involving swallowing a small capsule containing a tiny camera in order to observe the small intestine)

There is no specific test for Crohn's disease or any other type of IBD. In most cases, a diagnosis of Crohn's disease will involve analyzing more than one diagnostic test.

How Is Crohn’s Disease Treated in Children? 

There is no known cure for Crohn’s disease. However, there are treatments and therapies available to manage symptoms and prevent flare-ups from occurring.

It is essential to speak with your healthcare provider about an appropriate treatment plan and follow their recommendations.

Crohn's disease patients may want to consider self-monitoring their food intake and avoid foods that cause pain or other symptoms.

Some other treatment guidance may include:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Take physician-recommended vitamins and supplements.
  • Reduce intake of dairy, carbohydrates, and foods with excess fat.

Treatments for Crohn's disease for children experiencing a flare-up may include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Nutritional support if needed
  • Medications, such as steroids that can reduce inflammation
  • Intravenous (IV, though a vein) fluids or IV nutrition for children who are unable to eat

In some cases, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. This will not cure Crohn's disease. However, it may fix some of the issues related to bleeding, an obstruction in the intestine, a hole or perforation in the bowel, or other symptoms.

Managing or eliminating symptoms is essential. In addition, your healthcare provider may discuss ways to help maintain normal growth, prevent complications, and maximize your child's overall quality of life.

A Word From Verywell

Having a child who is diagnosed with Crohn's disease can be overwhelming and worrying. Although there is no cure for Crohn's disease, there are many successful treatment options available. Many children live a full and happy life by managing their disease with a treatment plan that work best for them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms by age?

    The most common symptoms that children diagnosed with Crohn's disease experience include diarrhea, blood in the stool, and abdominal pain.

    Other symptoms that children may experience include:

    • The urgency to have a bowel movement
    • Loss of appetite
    • Abdominal pain
    • Weight loss
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Exhaustion
    • Malnutrition
    • Fever and chills

    It is possible that a reduced appetite in children can result in a slower weight gain during childhood or adolescence. In severe cases, some children might grow more slowly than their peers, or puberty may be delayed.

  • Can you prevent Crohn’s disease in children?

    It is impossible to prevent Crohn's disease or predict who will get it. However, children and teenagers may be at higher risk of Crohn's disease if they:

    • Smoke
    • Have a family history of Crohn's disease
    • Live in developed countries, in cities, and in northern climates
  • How is Crohn’s disease treated in children?

    Treatment often includes managing or eliminating symptoms. Parents and caregivers can work with a healthcare provider to formulate a treatment plan.

    Treatments for Crohn's disease in children may include:

    • Dietary changes (smaller, more frequent meals)
    • Drinking plenty of fluids
    • Nutritional support if needed
    • Medications, such as steroids that can reduce inflammation
    • IV fluid or feeding for children who are unable to stay hydrated or absorb nutrition
    • Surgery
Was this page helpful?
11 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. Wilkins T, Jarvis K, Patel J. Diagnosis and management of Crohn’s diseaseAm Fam Physician. 2011;84(12):1365-1375.

  2. von Allmen D. Pediatric crohn’s diseaseClin Colon Rectal Surg. 2018;31(2):80-88. doi:10.1055/s-0037-1609022

  3. Rosen MJ, Dhawan A, Saeed SA. Inflammatory bowel disease in children and adolescentsJAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(11):1053-1060. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1982

  4. Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. Overview of Crohn's disease.

  5. Yale Medicine. Pediatric crohn's disease.

  6. Gasparetto M, Guariso G. Crohn’s disease and growth deficiency in children and adolescentsWorld J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(37):13219-13233. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i37.13219

  7. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Pediatric crohn’s disease. Updated 2019.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. Crohn's disease. Updated May 28, 2020.

  9. Gupta N, Bostrom AG, Kirschner BS, et al. Gender differences in presentation and course of disease in pediatric patients with Crohn disease. Pediatrics. 2007;120(6):e1418-e1425. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0905

  10. Cedars-Sinai. Crohn's disease in children.

  11. Yale Medicine. Pediatric crohn's disease.