A STUDENT is warning others not to ignore unusual bowel movements, after she mistook symptoms of a killer disease for a hangover.
Lucy Aitkins, from Surrey, was enjoying her university experience as the world finally emerged from lockdown, when her health started to rapidly deteriorate.
As she prepared to begin her second year at the University of Birmingham in September 2021, Lucy realised she was losing weight.
The previously healthy 22-year-old had shed 10kgs in six months over the lockdown – without trying.
In October, the English and drama student started vomiting and experiencing diarrhoea regularly, which she put down to "drinking too much alcohol on nights out with her friends".
Not wanting to worry her housemates, Lucy suffered in silence while the pain in her stomach was “secretly becoming unbearable”.
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“The pain was affecting my studies, to the point where I even started to fall asleep in lectures,” she said.
After clubbing until 4am one night in spring 2022, Lucy woke up unable to walk, but still alarm bells did not ring.
She said: “The next couple days, I just iced my feet and rested them in the hope that they would recover quickly.
“I still didn’t make the connection between this and the diarrhoea because it seemed like a completely different problem,” she said.
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When Lucy returned home at Easter, she told her parents and put her symptoms down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“When I Googled the symptoms of IBS I saw that stress could play a role so I thought my diarrhoea might just be down to boy drama.
“At the time, I was looking to be in a relationship and going on dates but none of the boys I was meeting wanted anything serious, and I couldn’t find any nice boys,” she said.
But two weeks after returning to university following the Easter break, Lucy rang her mum in agony.
She said: “I was scared because the pain was so bad and I explained to my mum that I was breathing through it.”
Alarmed, Lucy’s parents drove to Birmingham from Surrey to bring her home and once there, she saw her local GP who referred her to Epsom General Hospital.
There, doctors were concerned that Lucy could have bowel cancer and advised a colonoscopy.
Lucy said: “I was terrified and had to wait two weeks back at uni before the procedure, which was a very scary time."
The colonoscopy revealed that Lucy had Crohn’s Disease, a condition that causes inflammation of the digestive system.
She was told her bowel was very close to perforating – a rare but fatal complication which can emerge in untreated cases of Crohn's disease.
"They told me if it had perforated, I would have needed surgery and a stoma bag.
"It would have been quite dangerous as well as it can cause internal bleeding," she added.
According to Guts Charity UK, untreated Crohn's can cause several life-threatening complications, such as severe infections and colorectal cancer.
Swollen or painful hands and feet – like what Lucy experienced in the Spring – are side effects of the illness, the charity said.
Lucy spent the next five nights in hospital as medics got her inflammation under control.
She said: “I didn’t really know what Crohn’s was before that day, the only thing I knew was that the comedian Pete Davidson had also been diagnosed with it.
“After five days, I was able to go home and now, I go back into hospital every two months to have an infusion of medication and I also take daily iron and calcium supplements.”
In a survey by charity Crohn’s & Colitis UK, almost a quarter of people said Crohn’s or Colitis had stopped them from reaching their full potential in education.
Fortunately for Lucy, she was able to get her studies back on track and says she now feels like her normal self again.
Lucy said: “I only missed one exam during the ordeal which I was able to sit two weeks ago and now, after passing them all, I’m excited to start my final year.
“I feel so much better and the treatment seems to be working. I’ll have the infusions for a year before doctors reassess how I’m doing.”
Lucy hopes to encourage other people to seek medical advice if something doesn't feel right.
She said: “I would really like to highlight the importance of seeing a doctor if you do experience a change in bowel movements.
“Hearing my Crohn’s be described as severe and at high risk of perforation when it was eventually caught was very scary.
“I urge anyone to seek medical advice if they notice worrying changes with their body.”
Lucy documents her health journey in a blog, visit: www.living-with-crohns.blogspot.com
What is Crohn's Disease?
It is a condition that causes inflammation of the digestive system.
The inflammation is the body's reaction to injury or irritation, and can cause redness, swelling and pain.
It is often described as a chronic condition and although sufferers will have periods of good health, there are flare-ups where symptoms are more active.
It is one of the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease – the other is a condition known as ulcerative colitis.
While the exact cause of Crohn's disease is not known, experts believe there are several things that can increase a person's risk.
Genes are thought to play a factor – you're more likely to be diagnosed if a family member has the disease.
In other cases, it's thought a problem with the immune system that causes it to attack itself, can be to blame.
Smoking, a previous stomach bug and an abnormal balance of gut bacteria could also cause the debilitating condition.
What are the signs and symptoms of Crohn's disease?
Common symptoms include recurring diarrhoea, abdominal pain and cramping – usually worse after eating and extreme tiredness.
Unintended weight loss and blood and mucus in your stools are also common symptoms.
People may only experience one of the above symptoms and some experience severe symptoms or mild problems.
There may also be weeks or months where symptoms are mild or non-existent.
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Less common symptoms include a high temperature, feeling sick and being sick, joint pain and swelling, inflammation and irritation of the eyes and mouth ulcers.
If you have persistent diarrhoea, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss or blood in your stools, speak your GP asap.
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