September 26

The Hidden Link Between Smoking and Crohn's Disease

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It’s well established that smoking significantly raises the risks for heart disease and cancer, and the evidence tying cigarettes to Crohn’s disease is mounting.

Research has shown that people who smoke are at a higher risk for the disease and are more likely to experience severe symptoms if they do develop Crohn’s.

The notion of a connection between smoking and a condition that affects roughly 780,000 Americans shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Crohn’s disease is marked by inflammation of the digestive tract and smoking is known to promote inflammation. However, more research is needed to better understand smoking’s impact on the development of Crohn’s disease.

“It’s not absolutely hashed out yet that [smoking] is a cause of Crohn’s, but if you’re a smoker and happen to have Crohn’s disease, that’s a bad combination,” says Rick Desi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

The Effects of Smoking on Crohn’s Disease

Research comparing smokers and nonsmokers who suffer from Crohn’s disease has shown that those who have Crohn’s and quit smoking subsequently experience fewer Crohn’s symptom flares, such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. Meanwhile, Crohn’s patients who smoke were more likely to need medication and repeat surgeries for their condition than nonsmokers with the condition.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly how smoking worsens Crohn’s symptoms, but it’s thought that cigarette smoke damages protective mucous membranes in the digestive system, increasing the risk for inflammation.

“Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system starts attacking itself,” Dr. Desi says. “If you already have a tendency toward this and you destroy the mucosa through smoking, you may get inflamed.”

Smoking can also make medications less effective. Research has shown that smokers with Crohn’s become less responsive to certain anti-inflammatory drugs over time.

A Crohn’s Diagnosis Is One More Reason to Quit Smoking

It remains a challenge to pinpoint how much of a role smoking plays in the progression of the disease because it’s not known how many people with Crohn’s smoke.

“There are tons of patients who don’t smoke who get [Crohn’s], as well as patients who do smoke and don’t,” Desi says.

In most cases, however, people with Crohn’s who light up are advised to stop to lessen the severity of the disease and to prevent other health problems, including but not limited to:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking also shortens life spans by about 10 years. If you do smoke, there are many resources to help you quit. These include:

Counseling

Support groups

Special programs

Medications

If you smoke and are ready to stop, you can start by talking with your doctor to create a smoking-cessation strategy.

Additional reporting by Tuan Nguyen

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