What Causes Crohn’s Disease

The exact cause of Crohn’s disease remains unknown. Previously, diet and stress were suspected, but now doctors know that these factors may aggravate, but don’t cause, Crohn’s disease. Several factors likely play a role in its development include the following:

  • Immune system. It’s possible that a virus or bacterium may trigger Crohn’s disease; however, scientists have yet to identify such a trigger. When your immune system tries to fight off an invading microorganism or environmental triggers, an atypical immune response causes the immune system to attack the cells in the digestive tract, too.
  • Heredity. Crohn’s disease is more common in people who have family members with the disease, so genes may play a role in making people more likely to have it. However, most people with Crohn’s disease do not have a family history of the disease.

Risk factors

Risk factors for Crohn’s disease may include:

  • Age. Crohn’s disease can occur at any age, but you’re likely to develop the condition when you’re young. Most people who develop Crohn’s disease are diagnosed before they’re around 30 years old.
  • Ethnicity. Although Crohn’s disease can affect any ethnic group, whites have the highest risk, especially people of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish descent. However, the incidence of Crohn’s disease is increasing among Black people who live in North America and the United Kingdom. Crohn’s disease is also being increasingly seen in the Middle Eastern population and among migrants to the United States.
  • Family history. You’re at higher risk if you have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling or child, with the disease. As many as 1 in 5 people with Crohn’s disease has a family member with the disease.
  • Cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking is the most important controllable risk factor for developing Crohn’s disease. Smoking also leads to more-severe disease and a greater risk of having surgery. If you smoke, it’s important to stop.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve), diclofenac sodium and others. While they do not cause Crohn’s disease, they can lead to inflammation of the bowel that makes Crohn’s disease worse.