Inflammatory Bowel Disease And Eye Problems: What You Need To Know
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term that doctors give to a number of diseases that cause inflammation of the large and small intestine. The two most common forms of IBD are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and around 60,000 people in Australia suffer with these types of IBD. IBD symptoms vary between patients, but these conditions can affect parts of the body outside the digestive system, including the eyes. Find out how IBD affects the body, and learn more about the different eye problems this condition can cause.
How IBD affects your body
Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis generally start to show symptoms between the ages of 15 and 30, although Crohn's is increasingly common in younger children. Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and ulceration in the large bowel (or colon). Crohn's disease causes inflammation throughout the digestive tract, but will often only affect isolated areas.
Common symptoms of both diseases include tiredness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Abdominal pain, constipation and weight loss also commonly affect sufferers, due to the inflammation in the digestive tract. Other symptoms are less common, but the side effects are sometimes unpleasant and severe.
IBD and eye problems
Doctors normally refer to IBD side effects that occur outside the digestive tract as extraintestinal symptoms. Doctors believe that IBD occurs due to a problem with the autoimmune system, and this can allow inflammatory symptoms to spread to other parts of the body like your joints. IBD can also make it harder for sufferers to absorb and hold on to nutrients in digested food, which can also cause problems. For example, IBD patients sometimes suffer skin problems because their bodies absorb fewer nutrients and vitamins.
Experts estimate that around 10 percent of people with inflammatory bowel disease suffer with eye problems. In fact, people with IBD often notice symptoms in their eyes before any other part of the body. As such, ironically, it's often a problem with your eyes that can alert your doctor to the fact you may have IBD.
Eye problems that affect IBD patients
IBD patients can experience several problems with their eyes.
Episcleritis can cause painful, watery eyes. The symptoms of the disease often resemble conjunctivitis, but the problem doesn't occur because of a bacterial infection. The whites of a patient's eye often become red and sore because the thin, outer layer of tissue between the conjunctiva and the sclera becomes inflamed. This inflammation often grows worse when a patient's intestinal symptoms flare up, but the condition will also normally subside as the other inflammatory symptoms go away.
Uveitis occurs when the uvea (the middle layer of the eye) becomes sore and inflamed. Most commonly, uveitis affects the iris, and this form of anterior uveitis also flares up when IBD symptoms grow worse in the digestive tract. Sufferers may experience redness, pain, light sensitivity and vision problems. Without treatment, uveitis can cause permanent vision damage and glaucoma, so it's important to seek medical attention as soon as you notice the symptoms.
Keratopathy sometimes affects people who have Crohn's disease. Eye doctors recognise various forms of keratopathy, but bullous keratopathy occurs when the cornea becomes swollen. An eye doctor will use a special slit lamp to look for white deposits at the edge of the cornea, which are a strong indicator of the disease.
Eye problems and IBD medications
It's not just irritable bowel disease that can cause problems with your eyes. Some medications that doctors prescribe can cause symptoms that aggravate your eyes. For example, many IBD patients control their symptoms with corticosteroids, but these drugs can cause glaucoma or cataracts over time.
If you suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, you may experience extraintestinal symptoms. Talk to your doctor or optometrist for more advice about how to treat these conditions.