Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

These lifelong conditions involve inflammation of the digestive system. Ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine, while Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive system, from mouth to anus.

These conditions can be managed but not cured. For many people, IBD is manageable with medication, but some more severe cases do result in surgery.

Many people with IBD will experience a flare-up of symptoms that often leads to a diagnosis, though flare-ups continue after diagnosis, and this is usually when many symptoms become more apparent, such as needing the toilet more often, experiencing rectal bleeding, and having abdominal pain.

If you’re going through a flare-up, it’s important that you look after yourself and have people onboard to support you. You need to take time to look after yourself, and to remember that your health is what’s most important.

If you can feel yourself going into a flare-up, or you’re already in one, talk to the people you love about what’s happening. Tell them what you’re going through and how your flare is affecting you.

Not only will it make you feel better to talk to someone about what’s happening, but it also allows those closest to you to gain an understanding, which means they’ll be able to offer help and support in the most appropriate way.

Tell them about your symptoms and what you need from the people you love, and be honest with them. Don’t hold back. Your aim is to make it through this flare and to get back on track, and you need as much support as possible — so tell them how they can best give that to you.

Tell them if you’d find it helpful for them to call you to check up on you.

Tell them if you’d just like them to listen and not to advise.

Tell them if support to you is simply understanding when you’re not well enough to leave the house, and you’d just prefer to sleep without being made to feel guilty.

This is a no-brainer. You need to immediately go to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of a bad flare-up. While flares are common, book an emergency appointment, or head straight to the ER if you’re experiencing symptoms such as:

  • rectal bleeding
  • severe stomach cramping
  • chronic diarrhea, which can leave you severely dehydrated
  • a fever

It’s important that a medical professional check you over and perform any testing to see how your body is reacting and whether the flare is serious or not. Your doctor should be updated so they can follow your flare to see whether it’s making good progress or not.

It’s also important to have medical input into how you can best help yourself, whether you need to be on any new medication, and whether you need to be referred to a specialist.

The bottom line is you know your body, and you know if you’re in a small flare that will last a few days and can be treated with extra rest or self-care, or if you’re in a situation that warrants emergency treatment. Listen to your body.

When to seek emergency help

If you’re in a flare-up and you’re struggling, it’s important that you see your doctor straight away. If your pain becomes severe, you begin vomiting or you experience bleeding from your rectum, go to your local ER. This is a medical emergency.

Working isn’t going to help you right now. Your body needs time to rest and recuperate.

When you see your doctor, ask for a sick note so that you can be signed off from work. You don’t need the extra stress in your life. All you need to do right now is focus on yourself and getting better. And putting an extra strain on your progress is more likely to worsen your symptoms.

Yes, your job is important, but your health comes first. And with knowledge of inflammatory bowel disease, your boss should be understanding.

It can be daunting talking to your boss about your health, but it’s important that you do so they can get an understanding. Ask to sit down with your boss for a chat, and explain what’s going on, how it’s affecting you, and what you need from work right now. It’s better to talk in person than it is to email, as you can really get your point across in the best way.

Evidence shows that stress can negatively affect your gut. And so it’s important to stay as stress-free as possible during a flare.

Cut out things from your life that make you stressed, whether this is social media, intense TV shows, or friends who don’t understand. This doesn’t mean cut them out forever, but it’s important that you limit your stress levels right now if you want to get better.

If you’re looking to de-stress without cutting things out, you could try mental health apps like Calm, which offers mindfulness. You could also try out some meditation in the comfort of your own home.

Exercise is also a good way to de-stress, even if it’s just a short walk to clear your head. If you can afford it, perhaps seek help from a therapist, who can help you talk through your life worries.

Get comfortable. Treat your flare like the days you would take off from school when you were younger and had the flu.

Get your coziest pajamas, a hot water bottle for your stomach, some peppermint tea for the bloating, and stock up on pain relief. Have a bath or put on your favorite TV show and just relax. Stay off your phone, focus on your recovery, and remember that your comfort is key right now.

Why not even put a self-care kit together? Find a bag and put everything you need inside it. I’d go for:

  • a hot water bottle
  • pajamas
  • my favorite chocolate
  • a face mask
  • a candle
  • a book
  • headphones
  • a bath bomb
  • a sleep mask
  • pain medication
  • some tea bags

Absolutely everything you need for the perfect self-care evening.

Every person with IBD is different. Some people thrive with fruits and vegetables, while others can’t handle them at all. But while you’re in a flare, it’s important that you nourish your body, that you’re eating and drinking enough, and looking after yourself.

Don’t let yourself go hungry, and don’t let yourself get dehydrated. Even if you can only eat in small amounts, do try to eat what you can — you need all the energy you can get right now.

If you’re really struggling to keep down fluids, it’s important that you go to the hospital and ask for fluids so that you can rehydrate your body. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor whether there are any nutritional drinks that would suit you, to help you maintain your weight and absorb calories.

Sometimes it can help to talk about what’s going on with other people who actually get it. People can mean well, but if they don’t also have the disease, it can be hard to know what advice to offer.

You may also end up with people giving you unsolicited advice or judgmental comments, simply because they don’t understand. But by joining online support groups, many of which are available on Facebook, you can talk to people who understand from the comfort of your own home.

There are so many people going through the same thing as you right now, and it can be a great thing to hear from someone with experience, who may be able to offer you the support and knowledge you need right now.

What I also find really helpful are inflammatory bowel disease blogs and following advocates on Twitter and Instagram for more frequent, relatable posts.

It’s also a good idea to jump on Amazon and see what IBD books are out there, so you can gain a better understanding of the disease while relating to other people going through a similar thing. It’s nice to realize you’re not alone.


Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.