Crohn's in College: The importance of understanding flare-ups and your disease

By Erin Ard

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I've been living with #CrohnsDisease for 11 years, but even with years of experiences, mishaps, and triumphs, I feel I'm still learning how it affects me. One of the biggest realizations happened recently when I was in college. Around my junior year I had hit a wall. It was becoming increasingly harder to navigate my studies and my energy level was draining rapidly. I had been taking classes year round for three straight years, taking classes in the summer and having heavy, difficult course loads to accommodate my second major and research. Unbeknownst to me, I was actually neglecting my health.

I started consistent Remicade treatments in high school and the difference it made was 100 fold. I went from an underweight, fatigued freshmen to a strong, motivated sophomore. The change was so positively significant that I thought all of my worries about Crohn's were behind me. I could eat good food again! And play competitively in sports! And I carried this mindset into college. I thought my struggle was over and could focus all my energy on school.. And I carried this mindset into college. Turns out I was wrong.

After a few painful semesters I started to realize what was happening. I was starting to get burnt out, I was sleep deprived and running on fumes. I was struggling with my motivation and my anxiety was building. Though seemingly dormant, my Crohn's disease was still affecting my mind and body.

I had ignored all of the signs up until this point. The fatigue and anxiety I felt in classrooms. The random little fevers during an important lecture that distracted me. The joint pain that slowed my walk to class or hindered my ability to exercise. The gut discomfort during an exam that forced me to finish quickly to get the hell out of there. And finally the gut-wrenching pains that made it impossible to walk. Everything added up, but it took me three years in college to see.

Starting my senior year I sought accommodations from our Disability Center on campus, which alleviated most of the worries set in place by my Crohn's. However, I was left wondering.. Why did it take me so long to figure out Crohn's still had a big impact on my daily life?

Essentially, it came down to my personality and one big misconception. During the initial stages, Crohn's had such an emotional impact that I've always tried to shut it out. In shutting it out, I failed to seek out information from outside resources and tried to figure it out on my own. In doing so, this lead to one big misconception around the focal point of Crohn's disease - flare ups.

I never generally understood what they are, their causes, how to help remedy them, and everything else. See, before I went on Remicade I was in a constant state of flaring up. I was unable to get it under control long enough to have a normal bowel movement. Which meant I wasn't able to eat much and I didn't have a lot of energy. I lived off of my mom's homemade chicken noodle soup and mashed potatoes because they were the only meals gentle enough to my gut. Here is what I have learned since then.

Flare-ups are periods of time when the disease becomes active and symptoms reappear. They consist of prolonged symptoms like gut pain from inflammation, diarrhea, blood in the stool, fatigue, and/or weight-loss. How long the symptoms last and the severity of them is different from person to person. Some medication, like Remicade/Renflexis/Infliximab, is specifically used to control symptoms enough to enter remission (i.e. an absence of symptoms or inactive disease), which means no flare-ups! Medication may be combined with other meds or diet restructuring to help keep symptoms under control. Over time, however, the same treatment regimen may not have the same affect. So adjustments in type of medication, dosage or frequency, or further diet modifications may be needed. Here, this whole time, I had thought of my disease as in remission, inactive, and needing no more thought. When in reality, it's going to be an every day effort.

See this article from Very Well Health to learn more about flare-ups and different ways to define remission.

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My personal tip is to pay attention to what your body tells you. Focus on whether certain symptoms are still present - do you have gut pain? Diarrhea? Painful bowl movements? Other non-gut related symptoms? Pay attention to how long these symptoms persist and take notes. This might mean your Crohn's or Colitis is still active and it's important to tell your health team. If one thing just isn't doing the trick, there might be additional options to help you reach your potential in healthy living. And if you haven't already, seek out information about the disability center on your campus!

I've recently started to pay more attention to my body's responses. What used to be my response to the question, "What can you eat?" has changed from, "Oh, I can eat anything!" to, "Well.. I'm still trying to figure that out." In all honesty, I AM still figuring it out. Though certain foods don't affect me like they did before medication, they still influence how I feel. And it is my responsibility to make sure I take care of myself by eating the right foods and not the wrong ones.

Be attentive. Always seek a better understanding. Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. And most importantly, take care of yourself!

With love,

Erin