Lifting the lid on Crohn’s and colitis, the ‘invisible’ diseases

Breaking the taboo on poo


Let’s be honest. Poo is a taboo. It’s considered repulsive, embarrassing and nobody likes talking about it. People are rarely open about their bowel habits and if they are, unless you know them really really well, you’d probably consider them a little bit disgusting, wouldn’t you?

The start of December was Crohn’s and colitis awareness week. The campaign focused on ‘breaking the taboo on poo,’ and raising awareness for an incurable, auto-immune disorder, which affects more than 300,000 people in the UK.

Inflammatory bowel disease can be diagnosed at any age, although it often occurs for the first time most commonly in young people between 15 and 25 years old. As a result, it is a disease that will likely affect many students at university throughout the country.  So, what is it like to live as a student with this chronic and potentially debilitating disease and what can UK universities do to help raise awareness?

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Embarrassment

In a society where poo health is considered such an embarrassing subject, how do you promote awareness for a disease that nobody wants to talk about ? The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease can vary, however they often include recurring diarrhoea which usually contains blood or pus, abdominal pains and a need to frequently empty your bowels. This can be anything between four and twenty times a day depending on the extent of your disease.

This can lead to an inhibitory, housebound lifestyle for anybody suffering. For students, this condition can have a considerable impact on their everyday lives at university. How do you explain to your flat mates that you don’t feel like going out to that social tonight, because you’ve been stuck on the loo all day ? It’s a pain in the arse if you’ll pardon the pun.

The embarrassment often creates anxiety issues, and unfortunately, sometimes means that suffering students aren’t able to embrace university life as they would’ve hoped. Even the most basic daily activities such as attending lectures can become severely stressful.

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It’s ‘invisible’

Their invisibility is another significant feature of inflammatory bowel disease that makes it difficult to raise awareness and often leaves sufferers feeling alone and isolated. Many diseases have symptoms that are visible to the eye. Many people with inflammatory bowel disease often suffer from severe fatigue, due to a cocktail of immuno-suppressive drugs they must take on a daily basis. University life can be draining enough as it is, and the last thing IBD sufferers want to hear is comments such as “how can you be tired, you haven’t done anything today”, or “you don’t look like you’re unwell”. If you have a broken leg, people can see the cast. Nobody sees a broken intestinal system and what it does to you.

The diseases is ‘rare’

Inflammatory bowel disease affects 300, 000 people a year in the UK. Heart-disease, diabetes, pneumonia, all these health conditions are considered ‘common’ and affect millions of people throughout the UK. As a result, they benefit both in terms of fundraising and awareness both at university and in a wider context. However the fact inflammatory bowel disease is less well publicised and often affects those at a young age, means that in the preliminary stages, it can be very difficult to adjust and adapt to life with this incurable condition.

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Lack of understanding

Unfortunately due to lack of awareness and inadequate advertising, inflammatory bowel disease if often confused with other bowel problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Big mistake. This is the biggest stab into the inflamed colon you could pay someone suffering with IBD. IBS isn’t classified as a true disease although it can obviously be distressing. It’s known as a “functional disorder,” which means its symptoms don’t have an identifiable cause. On the other hand, those with IBD are burdened for life and often suffer severe medical complications. These misconceptions must be addressed at university and society as a whole.

Unpredictability

The effects of inflammatory disease on people lives vary massively. Some people live the rest of their lives on medication more or less trouble free, whilst others might under-go urgent surgery, often needing their whole intestine removed. At one end of the scale, the disease can be irritating, at the other, life-threatening. This can make it difficult to create a clear and coherent picture of whats it’s like to be a student struggling with inflammatory bowel disease, making the raising of awareness more difficult. But the truth is, the disease is unique and different to every individual that suffers from it. Until we can learn to accept this, it won’t be possible to move forward.

What can I do ? 

Get involved! Crohn’s and Colitis UK is the biggest charity in the UK aiming to raise awareness for this ‘invisible illness.’ Supporting this fantastic charity at university would be a massive boost in both fundraising and fighting stigmas.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a life sentence of course, but it’s one sufferers learn to live with. It teaches you not to take your health for granted, how important friends can be, and how truly resilient you are as a human being. If the mention of poo so often in the article perturbed you then I’m afraid you’re part of the problem. So maybe instead, next time you get to the toilet and do the deed, just before you flush take a look at that luscious brown log, appreciate it and afford yourself a little smile.