Living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Reading time: more than 10 min

One of the most important things that patients with colitis or Crohn’s disease need to do is learn about the disease and get involved in their own care.

Form with ticked boxes in a folder

Work together with the healthcare team to take decisions and address any concerns through regular check-ups.

Documents with a question mark

Learn and stay informed about the disease so that you can be responsible for your own self-care and disease management.

Calendar with medication guidelines

Take the medication prescribed by your doctor correctly to prevent symptoms from reappearing and keep the condition in remission. If you do not, then the prognosis could worsen due to the appearance of complications.

Man running; regular physical exercise

Assimilating some healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a balanced diet, giving up smoking and looking after your emotional well-being, will contribute to good control of the disease and therefore improve your quality of life.

What external factors may aggravate the disease?

Cigarette crossed out on a "no smoking" poster

Smoking is a detrimental factor associated with a greater risk of developing Crohn’s disease and the habit has a negative impact on the condition’s evolution.

Medicines, pills

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are not strictly contraindicated, particularly for short periods and at low doses, but it is important to take into account that 20–25% of patients are sensitive to these medicines and can suffer flare-ups associated with their use.

Standing person with abdominal pain

Gastroenteritis can trigger the onset of the disease and the appearance of a flare-up.

What should I do if the disease intensifies?

If you notice symptoms that indicate a potential flare-up and which last for more than 24 hours, then you should contact your healthcare team as soon as possible to receive appropriate, early treatment and medical advice.

The symptoms of a flare-up are:

Standing person with abdominal pain

Moderate/intense abdominal pain

Person with abdominal pain next to a toilet with medication crossed out

Diarrhoea that cannot be controlled with normal treatment

Blood in the stool

Blood in stools

Scale with a down arrow indicating a weight loss

Weight loss and fatigue

Person vomiting in a toilet

Nausea and vomiting

Once the flare-up has been confirmed, and depending on the type of disease, area affected and severity of the lesions, the nursing staff, in collaboration with the doctor, may tell you to follow some instructions with respect to modifying the dose, adding a new treatment or organising additional examinations and/or appointments.

Living with the disease

Living with inflammatory bowel disease can be a challenge, but with support and by adapting your lifestyle to the condition you can overcome the acute symptoms that appear during flare-ups.

Tired, sweating man

Fatigue. Fatigue can affect patients with inflammatory bowel disease when in remission and increases during aggravated periods (flare-ups).
The cause of fatigue can depend on various factors: iron deficiency (anaemia) or other nutritional deficiencies, mood disorders (anxiety and depression), unrefreshing sleep, medication, stress, etc. It is generally more frequent in Crohn’s disease than in ulcerative colitis. If biochemical, haematological and endocrine causes can be ruled out, then some strategies that can help recover from fatigue include: brief naps during the day, avoid working nightshifts, practise regular, low-intensity exercise, get refreshing sleep at night, maintain a balanced diet and a good level of hydration.

Man with fecal incontinence

Faecal incontinence. Faecal incontinence is involuntary or inappropriate leakage of solid or liquid faeces. The emission of gases is associated with anal incontinence. Faecal incontinence can prove to be a significant problem, as it can affect patients’ physical and psychological condition as well as their social lives. Nursing staff, in collaboration with the medical team, play a vital role in helping patients manage and relieve the symptoms of faecal incontinence. These strategies include: information, exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, behavioural therapy (biofeedback), perianal skin care, bowel retraining, improving faeces consistency through diet and the use of antidiarrhoeal agents, etc.

Standing person with abdominal pain

Pain. Abdominal pain is a common complaint of inflammatory bowel disease and is often the first symptom to appear both at diagnosis and at the start of a new flare-up. Pain may be due to inflammation of the intestinal mucosa, narrowing of the intestinal lumen (stenosis) or the coexistence of other functional digestive symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Factors external to the intestines, such as joint or dermatological complaints, can also give rise to pain. If there is pain, then its cause must be identified and controlled with the aid of drugs, and attempts made to avert associated side effects.

Healthy lifestyle habits

Living with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease means you have to adapt your daily life to the condition (so long as these adjustments are healthy), without necessarily resorting to major lifestyle changes.

Apple with a "tic"

A balanced diet. The treatment of inflammatory bowel disease does not follow a specific diet and there is no need to exclude any particular food, except in the case of a food intolerance. A balanced and varied diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, is recommended. If necessary, a nutritionist can suggest a diet adapted to the needs of each patient. Patients are only recommended to follow diets adapted by nutritionists under exceptional circumstances, such as the case of nutritional deficiencies, abdominal discomfort (abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhoea, vomiting), intestinal stenosis and during the post-operative period following intestinal surgery.

Person swimming

Physical exercise. Patients with inflammatory bowel disease should take part in regular exercise because it prevents the loss of bone and muscular mass, and therefore decreases the risk of fractures.

Person seated cross-legged in yoga pose

Stress. There is no evidence to suggest that stress can cause the disease or trigger a flare-up, but some events which exacerbate the disease have been associated with periods of increased stress. Various causes may be involved and so it is approached differently for each person and occasion. Establishing routines, resting, practising relaxation techniques or yoga, or receiving massages can help combat stress.

Cigarette crossed out on a "no smoking" poster

Give up smoking. Smoking is detrimental to patients with Crohn’s disease as it is associated with a poorer evolution, an increased need for surgery and a higher recurrence rate following an intestinal resection (reappearance of lesions in the mucosa and/or symptoms). On the other hand, individuals who quit smoking will reduce the risk of these complications to a level comparable with people who have never smoked. Primary healthcare centres have specific teams trained to help patients stop smoking. Therefore it is important that patients get involved in their own healthcare and are aware of the benefits of quitting smoking.

Psychosocial impact of inflammatory bowel disease

The diagnosis of a chronic disease has a psychological impact on patients, and also affects their family and social environments. Additionally, this new situation can entail changes in their daily lives which require an adaptation process.

The disease can affect patients to a greater or lesser extent and impact on different areas of their life:

Person thinking with hand on head and question mark

In a personal context, the disease process can affect how you perceive yourself and your self-esteem; it can produce a loss of self-confidence and a feeling that you have little control over your life and the future.

Father, mother and child family

In a family context, some patients may feel they are a burden, or feel guilty, note a lack confidence, or have trouble expressing their emotions and incomprehension or communicating in general.

Two men and a woman

In a social context, the illness can have an impact on social, workplace and/or romantic relationships. Some people reduce their activities involving social relationships for different reasons; because of the need to go to the bathroom, their body image, a lack of energy and weakness, hospital admissions, treatments, flare-ups, poor control of symptoms, embarrassing situations, feeling different, social rejection, etc.

Person sitting at a table with several documents

In a workplace context, some patients can feel they do not perform well enough. The occasional need to take time off work can cause frustration in terms of achieving goals.

Patients can feel constrained by the disease and in some cases may require psychological support from a professional in order to cope with these situations and improve their quality of life.

Health check-ups and preventative measures

Patients with long-term inflammatory bowel disease have a greater risk of developing other illnesses, for example colon cancer. It is therefore important to follow preventative recommendations and attend all health check-ups scheduled by the medical team.

Colon cancer

Colon cancerPatients with long-term inflammatory bowel disease have a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer than the general population. Based on the duration of the illness, its extension, family history and other associated diseases, the doctor will advise patients when they should undergo a colonoscopy check-up and the frequency of future examinations.

Bone affected by osteoporosis

OsteoporosisOsteoporosis is a condition that affects the bones. It causes bone fragility and increases the risk of fractures. It can be induced by treatments for inflammatory bowel disease, such as in the case of corticosteroids. General preventative measures are to avoid tobacco/alcohol consumption, eat a calcium and protein-rich diet, and practise regular exercise. Other important preventative measures involve establishing good control over the intestinal inflammation, taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, and limiting the use of corticosteroids.

Correct vaccination

Infections and vaccination. The majority of the medicines used to manage inflammatory bowel disease are immunosuppressants. These drugs can reduce the body’s immune response and increase, therefore, the risk of infections. It is important for IBD patients to check their vaccination status and update it regularly to prevent infections.

Correct blue and green pharmaceuticals

Drug monitoring. Immunosuppressive therapy must be monitored regularly through laboratory tests in order to detect potential complications and to adjust the medication dosage. Immunosuppressants are safe medicines, but they are not exempt from side effects. Hence their use must be monitored with regular laboratory tests to improve their safety profile.

Sun and umbrella

Sun exposure. Akin to the general population, IBD patients should avoid excess exposure to the sun and always apply sunscreen, but this is particularly true for individuals receiving immunosuppressive therapy. These medicines are photosensitive and, although uncommon, they may provoke malignant lesions if the skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet radiation.

Female reproductive system

Gynaecological check-ups for women. Patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapy may have a greater risk of becoming infected with human papillomavirus, a virus which is in turn associated with a greater risk of developing cervical cancer. For this reason, patients are advised to attend regular gynaecological check-ups and ensure they are vaccinated.

Sexuality, fertility and pregnancy

It is only natural to worry about the impact inflammatory bowel disease may have on personal and sexual relationships. But in the same way as the symptoms of the disease can be controlled, its effect on sexual desire and activity can also be managed.

Symbol of man and woman

Sexuality. Partner or intimate relationships can be affected by the symptoms of the actual disease (fatigue, abdominal pain, diarrhoea), as a result of emotional distress (insecurity, stress, depression) or due to some of the medicines (corticosteroids, for example, can lead to reduced sexual desire). In more severe cases, rectal surgery can damage pelvic nerves and produce erectile dysfunction in men or lubrication problems and/or painful intercourse (dyspareunia) in women.

Sperm fertilizing an ovule

Fertility. On the whole, inflammatory bowel disease does not increase a person’s likelihood of infertility with respect to the general population. Nevertheless, infertility may be a potential complication of certain operations used to treat IBD.

Pregnant woman

PregnancyPatients with inflammatory bowel disease, whether male or female, and whether they suffer from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, generally have the same capacity to bear children (fertility) as the healthy population. The best time to conceive is when the illness is inactive. Inactive periods must have lasted for at least three months before trying to conceive. The risk of complications during pregnancy, and for the foetus, increases if the disease is active, as does the risk of premature birth or miscarriage.


Contraception. It is important to avoid pregnancy if you are being treated with methotrexate (an immunosuppressant) and for the next six months after discontinuing the drug because it can cause foetal malformations (it is teratogenic). All other drugs used to manage IBD do not carry any contraindications for pregnancy.

Inflammatory bowel disease travel advice

Doctor and patient

Inform the healthcare team. It is important to tell them your destination, trip duration and date a few months in advance. The corresponding specialist can assess the need to prescribe any vaccines or a specific prophylactic treatment, or determine if any tests are required.


Vaccination. Vaccination regulations established by the destination country may not be compatible with medications taken for inflammatory bowel disease, especially for the case of immunosuppressive therapies. 

Folder with a patient's medical history

Report. Take with you a report from the healthcare team that defines your illness and the medication you are taking. Also carry an updated copy of your vaccination booklet. 

Health cards or documentation

Safety. You are advised to travel with documents or a health insurance card that certifies you are entitled to receive healthcare services. 

Hospital building

Find out which hospitals are assigned to you in the destination country. Experts also recommend that you should learn about the treatment options and whether the healthcare service can guarantee quality and safety. You should also have a good idea about how you will deal with a potential flare-up.

Bottle of water

Bottled water and cooked foods. Once there, drink bottled water, eat cooked foods and hydrate well if you suffer a flare-up.

Return to hospital

After the journey. Once there, drink bottled water, eat cooked foods and hydrate well if you suffer a flare-up.

SOS Flare-up! PDF - 1,04 MB
SOS Flare-up! (Print version) PDF - 56 KB

Substantiated information by:

Ingrid Ordas Jimenez
Marta Gallego Barrero

Published: 20 February 2018
Updated: 4 September 2020

The donations that can be done through this webpage are exclusively for the benefit of Hospital Clínic of Barcelona through Fundació Clínic per a la Recerca Biomèdica and not for BBVA Foundation, entity that collaborates with the project of PortalClínic.


Receive the latest updates related to this content.

Thank you for subscribing!

If this is the first time you subscribe you will receive a confirmation email, check your inbox

An error occurred and we were unable to send your data, please try again later.