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What are some serious digestive diseases?

Digestive diseases can range from mild and temporary conditions to serious, chronic illnesses. Some of the most concerning digestive diseases include:

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD refers to chronic inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract. The two main types are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In Crohn’s disease, inflammation can affect any part of the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the innermost lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum. Symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD is thought to be an autoimmune disorder and the exact cause is unknown. Treatment focuses on reducing inflammation and relieving symptoms with medications, diet, and sometimes surgery. IBD is a lifelong condition with periods of flare-ups and remission.

Key Facts About IBD:

  • Over 3 million adults in the U.S. have IBD.
  • Initial onset is most common between ages 15-35.
  • Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract while ulcerative colitis only affects the colon and rectum.
  • Main symptoms are abdominal pain, urgent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue.
  • Treatment involves anti-inflammatory drugs, immune system suppressors, antibiotics, biologics, diet, and sometimes surgery.
  • IBD requires close medical management as there is no known cure.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an immune disorder triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Eating gluten damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, and fatigue. Celiac can also cause long-term complications like malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions, and in rare cases, cancer. The only treatment is a strict lifelong gluten-free diet. Over time, the damaged intestines can heal and resume healthy nutrient absorption.

Key Facts About Celiac Disease:

  • 1 in 100 people worldwide have celiac disease.
  • Only about 10-20% of cases are diagnosed.
  • Can develop at any age after gluten is introduced into the diet.
  • Main symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and weight loss.
  • Diagnosis involves blood tests and intestinal biopsy.
  • Treatment is a 100% gluten-free diet maintained for life.
  • Even small amounts of gluten can cause issues so strict diet is required.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back up into the esophagus, the tube connecting the mouth and stomach. The reflux causes irritation and damage to the esophageal lining, resulting in symptoms like heartburn, regurgitation, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and in serious cases, esophageal cancer. GERD can be caused by weakened or abnormal lower esophageal sphincter muscles, hiatal hernia, obesity, pregnancy, smoking, and certain foods. Treatment involves diet and lifestyle changes, antacids, H2 blockers, proton pump inhibitors, and sometimes surgery. Proper management can reduce acid reflux and allow the esophagus to heal.

Key Facts About GERD:

  • 20-30% of Americans have GERD.
  • Risk increases with age, obesity, pregnancy, smoking, and certain foods.
  • Main symptoms are heartburn, regurgitation, chest pain, and trouble swallowing.
  • Complications include esophageal strictures, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer.
  • Treatment involves medications, diet and lifestyle changes, sometimes surgery.
  • Well controlled GERD may have minimal symptoms and complications.


Gallstones form when bile concentrates and hardens into stone-like deposits in the gallbladder. Most cause no symptoms, but they can become problematic if they block ducts and cause infections or inflammation. Symptoms may include pain in the upper right abdomen, nausea, vomiting, fever, jaundice, and clay-colored stool. Gallstones risk factors include obesity, rapid weight loss, high-fat diet, female gender, family history, diabetes, and taking birth control pills. Treatment may involve medications to dissolve stones or laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder. Preventive measures include maintaining a healthy weight and limiting fat intake.

Key Facts About Gallstones:

  • Gallstones affect roughly 10% of adults in the U.S.
  • Women are affected 2-3 times more than men.
  • Being overweight and losing weight quickly raise risk.
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and jaundice.
  • Diagnosis often involves ultrasound of the gallbladder.
  • Treatment may be medications, gallbladder removal surgery, or observation if no symptoms.
  • Prevention focuses on maintaining healthy weight and diet.

Diverticulitis and Diverticulosis

Diverticula are small sacs or pouches that can form in the wall of the colon. Diverticulosis refers to the presence of these pouches which often cause no symptoms initially. Diverticulitis results when the pouches become inflamed or infected leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, cramping, and constipation. Repeated bouts of diverticulitis can lead to serious complications such as bleeding, tears, abscesses, fistulas, or blockages requiring emergency surgery. Diverticulitis is usually treated with antibiotics, pain relievers, and liquid diets. Preventative measures involve getting plenty of fiber, exercise, and avoiding seeds, popcorn, and nuts which can get trapped in the pouches.

Key Facts About Diverticulitis/Diverticulosis:

  • Over half of people over 60 have diverticulosis.
  • 10-25% of those with diverticulosis develop diverticulitis.
  • Increased risk with age, low-fiber diet, obesity, smoking, lack of exercise.
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain, fever, nausea, chills, cramping, constipation.
  • Complications like bleeding, tears, blockages may require surgery.
  • Treated with liquid diet, antibiotics, pain medication.
  • Prevented by fiber, exercise, avoiding seeds/nuts/popcorn.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS involves chronic digestive symptoms with no identifiable underlying cause. Symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation. Triggers may include stress, certain foods, hormonal changes, or disruption of the gut bacteria. IBS can be managed through dietary changes, stress relief, exercise, medication, probiotics, and therapy, but there is no cure. Symptoms often flare periodically and go into remission.

Key Facts About IBS:

  • Up to 20% of adults have IBS symptoms.
  • Twice as common in women than men.
  • Main symptoms are abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation.
  • Stress, diet, gut bacteria changes, hormones can trigger flares.
  • No identifiable cause, cure available.
  • Managed through diet, stress reduction, exercise, medication.
  • Symptoms come and go in flare-ups and remission.

Peptic Ulcers

Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the lining of the esophagus, stomach, or small intestine. The main cause is the bacteria Helicobacter pylori which can weaken the protective coating of the stomach and duodenum allowing stomach acid to irritate the sensitive tissue beneath. Symptoms include burning abdominal pain, hunger or nausea pains, vomiting, chest pain, fatigue, and weight loss. Ulcers are treated with antibiotics to eradicate H. pylori along with medications to reduce stomach acid. Lifestyle factors like stress, smoking, alcohol, and NSAIDs can also contribute to ulcers.

Key Facts About Peptic Ulcers:

  • About 10% of U.S. adults will develop a peptic ulcer.
  • Main cause is bacterial infection with Helicobacter pylori.
  • Pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen raise ulcer risk.
  • Symptoms include burning abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting.
  • Treated with antibiotics for H. pylori, acid reducers.
  • Smoking, alcohol, stress also contribute.
  • Well-treated ulcers can heal completely in 4-8 weeks.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance means the body lacks enough of the enzyme lactase to fully digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in dairy products. This leads to digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea after consuming milk, ice cream, cheese, or other high-lactose foods. The condition is managed by minimizing dairy intake and substituting lactose-free dairy products. Most can tolerate some amount of lactose without issue. Lactose intolerance is very common, affecting over half of adults worldwide to some degree.

Key Facts About Lactose Intolerance:

  • Up to 75% of adults worldwide have some lactose intolerance.
  • Caused by low production of the enzyme lactase.
  • Symptoms are bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea after dairy.
  • Managed by reducing dairy foods in the diet.
  • Most can tolerate small amounts without issue.
  • Substituting lactose-free milk and dairy products helps.
  • Not considered a dangerous disease, but quality of life issue.

Gastrointestinal Cancers

Cancers affecting the digestive system include esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, liver, colon and rectal cancers. Some risk factors include age, family history, obesity, smoking, alcohol, low-fiber diets, chronic infections or inflammation. Symptoms can include difficulty swallowing, unintentional weight loss, jaundice, blood in stool, abdominal pain or bloating. Diagnosis often requires endoscopies and imaging tests. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy drugs, or targeted therapies. Early detection offers the best outcomes. Preventive measures include maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting alcohol and red meat, and getting recommended cancer screenings.

Key Facts About GI Cancers:

  • Worldwide, GI cancers account for over 25% of cancer cases and deaths.
  • Main types are esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, liver, colorectal cancers.
  • Symptoms depend on location but may include trouble swallowing, weight loss, jaundice, stool changes, pain.
  • Screening endoscopies and imaging tests help diagnose.
  • Treatment involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy.
  • Prevention focuses on healthy lifestyle, weight, diet, alcohol/tobacco use.
  • Early detection via recommended screening offers best survival rates.

Gastrointestinal Bleeding

Bleeding can occur anywhere along the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus and can range from minor to massive and life-threatening. Causes include ulcers, tumors, tears, hemorrhoids, blood vessel issues, or infections. Symptoms depend on the location and severity but may include vomiting blood, bloody stools, black tarry stools, weakness, dizziness, and fainting. Diagnosis often involves endoscopy. Treatment includes IV fluids, blood transfusions, endoscopic procedures, surgery, and medications. Those taking blood thinners have higher risk. Preventive measures involve avoiding excessive use of NSAIDs, alcohol,tobacco and getting appropriate cancer screening.

Key Facts About GI Bleeding:

  • Up to 10% of U.S. adults have GI bleeding at some point.
  • Caused by ulcers, cancers, tears, hemorrhoids, blood vessel issues.
  • Symptoms are vomiting blood, bloody/black stools, weakness, dizziness.
  • Taking blood thinners raises risk.
  • Diagnosis often involves endoscopy procedures.
  • Treated by fluids, transfusions, endoscopic procedures, surgery.
  • Prevention involves limiting NSAIDs, alcohol, tobacco use.


Digestive disorders encompass a wide range of conditions from temporary issues to chronic, lifelong diseases. Some of the most serious digestive diseases include inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and colitis, celiac disease, GERD, diverticulitis, gastrointestinal cancers, bleeding, gallstones, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance. Symptoms, complications and treatment vary depending on the specific disease. In general, prevention and management center around maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet, limiting alcohol and tobacco use, managing stress, exercising regularly and getting appropriate medical care, screening and treatment. Research continues to enhance our understanding and therapy options for these challenging gastrointestinal diseases.