Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). People with Crohn’s disease experience inflammation in their gastrointestinal tract, most commonly in the small and large intestines. This causes symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, bloody stool, fever, and weight loss.

Whether Crohn’s can be considered an autoimmune disease remains unclear. An autoimmune disease happens when your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body.

Some people hypothesize that in Crohn’s disease, the immune system is attacking healthy cells of the digestive tract or the bacteria naturally present in the digestive tract.

We’ll dive in and look at what the research shows and what additional data we need to answer this question.

The immune system protects the body against foreign invaders, like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. When these harmful invaders enter the body, the immune system identifies them and launches an attack to eliminate the threat.

An autoimmune disorder is when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells of the body. This often results in inflammation.

Although the immune system is thought to be involved in Crohn’s, the disease isn’t classified as an autoimmune disorder. In fact, the exact cause of Crohn’s disease is still not completely understood.

The research suggests that the immune system is launching some sort of inappropriate response in people with Crohn’s disease.

However, the current evidence isn’t strong enough to prove that the body is creating antibodies against itself. Crohn’s disease also fails to meet the current standard criteria for classification as an autoimmune disorder.

Research suggests that the immune system, along with genetics and environmental factors, likely all play a role in the development of Crohn’s disease.

Older research showed that about 14 percent of the people with Crohn’s disease studied also have a first-degree relative — such as a parent, child, or sibling — with the disease. This suggests that genes do play a role.

In addition, several environmental factors and other risk factors have been identified that increase our chance of developing Crohn’s disease. These include:

  • smoking
  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen
  • eating a high-fat diet
  • taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
  • taking antibiotics

People with Crohn’s disease often have an increased risk of having an autoimmune disorder, which suggests there may be a connection.

A 2017 population-based registry study found that certain autoimmune diseases were significantly more common in people with IBD compared to the control group. The study included 47,325 people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis or both.

For people with Crohn’s, studies find that they’re at a higher risk of having another autoimmune disorder, such as:

This research suggests an overlap between Crohn’s disease and autoimmune conditions. There may also be certain genes that play a role in the development of several related conditions.

More research is needed to fully understand the reason behind this connection.

If you’re looking for support or ways to cope with a Crohn’s disease diagnosis, the following resources may be helpful:

You can also ask your gastroenterologist for a referral to a local group. Some hospitals may even sponsor their own support groups.

Crohn’s disease Is a complex disease. While it technically isn’t an autoimmune disease, a malfunctioning immune system likely does play a role in its cause.

Other factors, including genetics and environmental factors, likely also contribute to the development of Crohn’s disease.

If you have Crohn’s disease, you’re at an increased risk of also developing an autoimmune condition. This suggests some overlap in the process by which Crohn’s disease and autoimmune disorders develop in the body.

More research is needed to understand the role of the immune system in Crohn’s disease.