Self-Care Tips for Crohn’s Disease Flares

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

You’re trucking along, thinking your Crohn’s disease is under control, when bam—you feel the telltale signs of a flare coming on. One of the most frustrating things about Crohn’s, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), is its unpredictability—sometimes a flare can take you totally by surprise, leaving you with days of diarrhea, abdominal pain, and more. The right meds can go a long way toward relief, but your new BFF may be self-care: little things you can do yourself to make symptoms more bearable. Here’s what the experts say works best.

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Keep Your GI Doc in the Loop

Step one, when you feel a Crohn’s flare coming on, is to let your doctor know, says Sara N. Horst, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and IBD Center in Nashville. “If you’re flaring, you may need a change in medicines or to start a different type of medicine,” she says. Your doc will help you make adjustments if necessary, and might also want to do a few tests to figure out what exactly is causing the flare—sometimes medication itself can be a trigger.

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Know Your OTC Options

Crohn’s flares can be painful, and you may be tempted to reach for the ibuprofen bottle—but that can worsen symptoms, says Dr. Horst. “Make sure to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, Aleve, and Goody’s powder,” she says. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a safer bet, but ask your doctor first, says Neilanjan Nandi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. And speaking of meds, have antidiarrheal medicines like Imodium at the ready, too, he says.

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Use Soothing Bathroom Products

Diarrhea and frequent or urgent bowel movements are symptom numero uno for a Crohn’s flare, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Stock your bathroom with quality supplies and soft toilet paper—it makes a difference, says Dr. Nandi. Also, keep a stash of baby wipes nearby to help sooth irritated and painful skin around the anus that often occurs during a flare, he says. Medicated pads like Tucks ($9.79, CVS) or Epsom salt baths may also offer some relief.

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Choose Your Food Carefully

Your digestive tract is already inflamed during a Crohn’s flare—no need to aggravate it further with the food you’re eating. “Changing the diet drastically to a BRAT [bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast] diet initially can help lessen abdominal pain and cramping,” says Dr. Nandi. That said, the BRAT diet can leave out important nutritional needs, he says, so make sure you’re getting protein in your diet during a flare, too. And watch out for high-fiber foods, which can exacerbate diarrhea, says Dr. Horst.

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Drink Up

When you’re losing more fluid than usual due to diarrhea or rectal bleeding during a Crohn’s flare, you can get dehydrated fast. It’s super important to make sure you’re taking steps to rehydrate, says Dr. Nandi. That may mean keeping a big water bottle at your side throughout your flare, but you may also want to try sports drinks like Gatorade, he says—these can help pump important electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium, back into your body.

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Talk With Your Boss

When you flare unexpectedly, the last thing you want to do is worry about what’s going on at the office. “Get familiar with what your job’s resources are,” says Dr. Horst. Understanding your company’s sick leave policies before you need to rely on them can help relieve stress during a flare. Also, consider giving your boss a heads up about your condition if you feel comfortable, says Dr. Horst—you don’t need to go into graphic detail, just enough so it’s clear this is a true medical emergency!

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Get some shut-eye

A Crohn’s flare can totally deplete you of energy. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest, says Dr. Horst. Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours at night, and don’t be afraid to nap during the day. Having friends and family help out with daily tasks can be a great way to save energy. And remember—rest is a priority when you’re not in a flare, too: “We know that in Crohn’s, a lack of sleep or poor sleep may increase the risk of flares,” she says.

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De-stress and Distract

Stress may be a fact of life, but it’s also a major trigger for a flare. Find ways to help keep stress under control: “Whether that’s yoga, therapy, watching bad TV, exercising, or playing with your kids or pet—whatever it is, it’s an important part of managing Crohn’s,” says Dr. Horst. While this is a vital prevention strategy, many of these activities—like gentle stretching or your favorite reality show—can come in handy to help you relax and refocus during a flare, too.

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Use Mindfulness Skills

Mindfulness practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or guided imagery can help lessen feeling of pain during a Crohn’s flare, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. The reason? They lower stress levels, a known flare trigger. The best time to start practicing mindfulness is before you’re in a flare, though, so make it a point to download that Headspace meditation app (Dr. Nandi-approved!) and give it a practice try now, when you’re healthy.

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Be Flexible

Crohn’s can look different from person to person, and that means the way you take care of yourself during a flare may differ from the Crohnie next-door. “Crohn’s is not one-size-fits-all,” says Dr. Horst. Take the time to track the things that may contribute to flares, as well as the self-care tactics that work best to help you feel better. (Keeping a log or journal may help.) And don’t forget to focus on preventing flares when you’re healthy, from taking your medication as directed to eating well, Dr. Nandi says.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.