What Is An IBD Flare?

Elizabeth Roberts Health Guide
  • According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word lingo means: special vocabulary of a particular field of interest.


    If you are a veteran of having Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), then you know our lingo, words like trigger and flare. But if you're new to living with IBD then you may have heard these words but not be particularly sure what they mean or refer to.  


    For those of us who find that certain foods cause our symptoms to become worse, we tend to call these trigger foods or triggers. Other triggers could be things like drinking alcohol or engaging in rigorous exercise or experiencing large amounts of stress.

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    A flare-up or flare, is when the disease is active and causes a worsening of symptoms over a period of time. For me, I wouldn't consider one day of having multiple diarrhea-prominent bowel movements a flare. What I would consider a flare-up of my ulcerative colitis is more than three days of diarrhea-prominent bowel movements -oftentimes with blood present (usually upwards of 10-20 BMs/day), a low-grade temperature, achy joints, extreme fatigue, and loss of appetite.


    As I've mentioned in other Shareposts, even though we share a common disease with a common name, IBDers tend to experience their disease in different ways and with different symptoms. So, what I consider a flare-up of my UC isn't necessarily what another IBDer would consider a flare-up of their disease. I know plenty of IBDers who rarely experience a low-grade temperature or achy joints with a flare, but who do have five, 10, or 20+ bowel movements per day - and they would consider that a flare if it lasts for multiple days or weeks.


    In short, a bad gut day, as I call them, doesn't constitute a flare for me. But a bad gut day that persists for many days or weeks is a flare-up of my UC and I know I need to see my doctor to help get it under control. It's important to keep your gastroenterologist apprised of your health, especially when you are having a flare of your illness so they can determine if you need to increase your medication dosage, or perhaps change or add a medication to help get the flare under control.  


    With IBD, a flare-up of the disease typically means that the inflammation in your gut is active or has gotten worse. This inflammation needs to be treated and gotten under control not only to help you feel better and continue living your life but also to reduce chances of the inflammation leading to further disease or possibly even colon cancer. Studies in recent years suggest that elevated levels of C-reactive protein, which indicate inflammation in our body, can be a marker for being more susceptible to getting colon cancer. So, a flare-up, while annoying and painful and exhausting, is also a way that your body is outwardly telling you that there is a physical issue that needs your attention.


    The next logical question then would be, "Is there a way to maintain remission?" Remission may also be a new bit of lingo. So, remission is when there is no disease activity present, so no flare-up or inflammation in the gut.


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    Again, there is no universal answer to this question for all people living with IBD. For me personally, I am almost never able to determine what causes a flare-up of my UC. I have changed my life and my diet drastically over the past 12 years - I've quite my corporate job and work freelance from home, I have integrated yoga, meditation, and other stress-reduction techniques into my daily life, my diet now consists only of whole, organic, gluten-free foods, and I take a daily IBD medication along with probiotics and other assorted supplements to boost my immune system and heal my gut.


    But even so, there are flare-ups that hit. Why? I've stopped asking for fear of driving myself nuts. Years ago, on a daily basis, I used to write down everything I ate or drank, I rated my stress levels on a scale of 1-10, I abstained from anything that I thought might cause stress and/or a flare, and even after all of that when a flare hit I couldn't see any particular pattern or deviation or reason that would have triggered the flare.


    It's hard but I've learned that I'm never going to figure out what causes my UC flares. Instead, I try to focus on living every day to my fullest potential on that day. Living with IBD is challenging but not impossible. And learning how to work through a flare-up is part of the challenge each of us will face. If you would like to learn more about my personal story you can read my book, Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Journey of Success - www.ibdandibs.com - it just might give you a few more ideas of how to progress in your own journey of living with IBD.        

Published On: July 16, 2010