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Oral manifestations of inflammatory bowel disease

Author: Dr Delwyn Dyall-Smith FACD, Dermatologist, 2015.


What is inflammatory bowel disease?

There are two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease – ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease. Both are characterised by abdominal pain and diarrhoea, sometimes with bleeding.

  • Ulcerative colitis typically involves only the colon (large bowel)
  • Crohn disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the lips to the anus with scattered lesions. Crohn disease is characterised on pathology by non-caseating granulomas but these are not always found on bowel biopsy.

Although the two diseases are quite separate, accurate diagnosis can sometimes be difficult especially in the early stages. Therefore involvement of other organs can help to make the distinction.

Involvement of body sites other than the bowel in inflammatory bowel disease

Both forms of inflammatory bowel disease can develop symptoms and signs in addition to the bowel disease. Changes in the skin and oral mucosa can develop with both, but are more commonly seen with Crohn disease. Sometimes these develop before the diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, leading the doctor to investigate for bowel problems. In some patients they may appear with flares of the bowel inflammation. Where the association is specific with diagnostic histology, it can be valuable in making the diagnosis.

Oral mucosa signs of inflammatory bowel disease

The changes of the face and oral mucosa associated with inflammatory bowel disease can be divided into four main categories:

  1. Specific, meaning these occur only in association with the bowel disease and/or show characteristic histology of that condition.
  2. Non-specific, meaning these occur more commonly with the bowel disease than in the general population, but also do occur without bowel disease, and the pathology is not diagnostic for the bowel disease.
  3. Complications of malabsorption caused by the bowel inflammation resulting in deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
  4. Side effects or complications of medications prescribed to treat the bowel disease.

The first three of these categories may be useful in directing the doctor to the bowel problem and making the specific diagnosis.

Oral signs of Crohn disease

The oral mucosa is commonly affected in Crohn disease with up to one third of patients reported to have oral changes, and even higher in children. In some studies, the oral changes preceded the diagnosis of Crohn disease in 60%. There may be a male predominance.

1. Specific oral mucosal changes: orofacial Crohn disease

In children with Crohn disease, orofacial Crohn disease can be an important presentation preceding the bowel diagnosis.

2. Nonspecific changes in the mouth and surrounding facial skin associated with Crohn disease:

  • Angular cheilitis
  • Aphthous ulcers/aphthous stomatitis – has been reported to affect up to 20-30% of patients with Crohn disease, although some studies show no increase in this compared to the general population. These cannot be distinguished clinically from the common aphthous ulcers.
  • Recurrent abscesses
  • Redness and scaling around the lips
  • Pyostomatitis vegetans – very rare in Crohn disease
  • Dry mouth – can result in dental decay, denture discomfort and infection
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Recurrent vomiting and regurgitation can cause oral pain and the acid result in dental decay.

Oral signs of ulcerative colitis

Mucosal changes have been reported in some patients with ulcerative colitis.

1. Specific orofacial changes of ulcerative colitis: pyostomatitis vegetans

2. Nonspecific changes of the mouth and surrounding skin associated with ulcerative colitis:

  • Minor and major aphthous ulcers/stomatitis – reported in at least 10%, usually worse with flares of the bowel disease and improving with treatment of the bowel inflammation. However this is probably no more common than the general population.
  • Glossitis (inflamed tongue)
  • Cheilitis (inflamed lips)
  • Bad breath (halitosis)

In children with ulcerative colitis, only nonspecific changes were seen in one large study.

Orofacial signs of malabsorption

Malabsorption may be due to the chronic diarrhoea, reduced food intake, overgrowth of bacteria in the bowel, bowel surgery, the disease itself, or the drugs used to treat the bowel disease.

Orofacial changes due to medications used to treat inflammatory bowel disease

Many different medications may be used to treat various aspects of inflammatory bowel diseases including antibiotics, biologic agents, immunosuppressants, anti-diarrhoeal agents and for pain. An alphabetical listing of some of the more common treatments follows, with their oral side effects.

Medication Adverse effects
adalimumab (biologic) Infections, angioedema
Budesonide (oral steroid) Glossitis, swelling of the tongue, dry mouth
Certolizumab (biologic) Stevens-Johnson syndrome / toxic epidermal necrolysis, angioedema
Cholestyramine (anion exchange resin) Irritation of the tongue, sour taste, dental bleeding, dental caries, erosion of tooth enamel, tooth discoloration
Ciclosporin (calcineurin inhibitor) Gum hyperplasia
Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic) Oral candidiasis, angioedema, Stevens-Johnson syndrome / toxic epidermal necrolysis, loss of taste
Colestipol (anion exchange resin) Difficulty swallowing
Diphenoxylate and atropine (antispasmodics) Dry mouth, lip swelling, taste changes or loss
Infliximab (biologic) Infections, angioedema
Loperamide (antidiarrhoeal) Dry mouth, Stevens-Johnson syndrome / toxic epidermal necrolysis, angioedema
Mesalazine (anti-inflammatory) Sore throat, oral candidiasis, dry mouth, stomatitis, altered taste
Methotrexate (folic acid antagonist) Stomatitis, gingivitis, pharyngitis
Metronidazole (antibiotic) Unpleasant metallic taste, furry tongue, glossitis, stomatitis, oral candidiasis, dry mouth
Prednis(ol)one (oral steroid) Oral candidiasis (thrush)
Propantheline (antispasmodic) Dry mouth, angioedema, loss of taste
Sulphasalazine (anti-inflammatory) Stomatitis, Stevens-Johnson syndrome / toxic epidermal necrolysis, altered taste, impaired folic acid absorption
Tacrolimus (calcineurin inhibitor) Oral candidiasis, aphthous mouth ulcers, Stevens-Johnson syndrome / toxic epidermal necrolysis, angioedema

Azathioprine and mycophenolate mofetil, often used to treat inflammatory bowel disease, do not have reported side effects in the mouth.



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  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease – Gastroenterology

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