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Ulcerative Colitis

What is ulcerative colitis?


  1. Ulcerative colitis occurs when the lining of the large intestine (colon or bowel) and the rectum become inflamed.
  2. Although the exact cause of ulcerative colitis is unknown, your genes, environment, and immune system all play a role.
  3. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition. Treatment usually involves drug therapy and/or surgery.

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD comprises a group of diseases that affect the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis occurs when the lining of the large intestine (colon or bowel) and the rectum become inflamed. This inflammation produces tiny sores called ulcers on the lining of the colon. It usually begins in the rectum and spreads upward. It rarely affects the small intestine beyond the lower portion.

The inflammation causes the bowel to move its contents rapidly and empty frequently. As cells on the surface of the lining of the bowel die, ulcers form. The ulcers may cause bleeding and discharge of mucus and pus.

While this disease affects people of all ages, most people are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35. After age 50, another small increase in the diagnosis is seen, usually in men.

What causes ulcerative colitis?

Although the trigger for ulcerative colitis remains unclear, researchers understand that the immune system undergoes an abnormal response to the colon. Your genes, environment, and immune system all play a role.

Who is at risk for ulcerative colitis?

Most people with ulcerative colitis don’t have a family history of the condition. However, you’re more likely to develop it if a parent or sibling also has the condition.

Ulcerative colitis can develop in a person of any race, but it is more common in Caucasians. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you are an Ashkenazi Jew you have a greater chance of developing the condition than most other groups.

Some studies show a possible link between the use of the drug isotretinoin (Accutane, Amnesteem, Claravis, or Sotret) and ulcerative colitis. Isotretinoin treats cystic acne.

What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?

The seriousness of symptoms varies among affected people. According to Cedars-Sinai, about 50 percent of people diagnosed with ulcerative colitis have mild symptoms. However, symptoms can be severe. Common symptoms of ulcerative colitis include:

  • abdominal pain
  • increased abdominal sounds
  • bloody stools
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • rectal pain
  • weight loss
  • malnutrition

Ulcerative colitis may cause additional conditions such as:

  • joint pain
  • joint swelling
  • nausea and decreased appetite
  • skin problems
  • mouth sores
  • eye inflammation

Complications of ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis increases your risk of colon cancer. The longer you have the disease, the higher your risk of colon cancer. Because of this increased risk, your doctor will perform a colonoscopy and check for cancer when you receive your diagnosis. Regular screening helps lower your risk of colon cancer. Repeat screenings every one to three years are recommended thereafter. Follow-up screenings can detect precancerous cells early.

Other complications of ulcerative colitis include:

  • thickening of the intestinal wall
  • sepsis (blood infection)
  • severe dehydration
  • toxic megacolon (rapidly swelling colon)
  • liver disease (rare)
  • intestinal bleeding
  • kidney stones
  • inflammation of skin, joints, and eyes
  • hole in the colon
  • ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of joints between the spinal bones)

How is ulcerative colitis diagnosed?

Different tests can help your doctor diagnose ulcerative colitis. This disorder mimics other bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease. Your doctor will run multiple tests to rule out other conditions.

Tests to diagnose ulcerative colitis often include:

  • Stool test: a doctor examines your stool for blood, bacteria, and parasites
  • Endoscopy: a doctor uses a flexible tube to examine the stomach, esophagus, and small intestine
  • Colonoscopy: diagnostic test that involves insertion of a long, flexible tube into the rectum to examine the inside of the colon
  • Biopsy: a surgeon removes a tissue sample from the colon
  • CT scan: a specialized x-ray of your abdomen and pelvis

Blood tests are often useful in the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. A complete blood count (CBC) looks for signs of anemia (low blood count). Other tests indicate inflammation such as a high C-reactive protein (CRP) and a high sedimentation rate (ESR). Your doctor may also order specialized antibody tests.

What are the treatments for ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition. Treatment usually involves drug therapy and/or surgery. The goal of treatment is to reduce the inflammation that causes your symptoms.

Your doctor may prescribe a medication to reduce inflammation and swelling. These types of medications include sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), mesalamine (Asacol and Lialda), balsalazide (Colazal), and olsalazine (Dipentum). Reducing inflammation will help alleviate many of your symptoms.

More severe cases may need corticosteroids, antibiotics, medications that suppress immune function, or antibody medications, called biologics, that help block inflammation in a different way.

If your symptoms are severe, you will need to be hospitalized to correct the effects of dehydration and malnutrition that diarrhea causes and to treat any complications

Surgery is necessary when there is massive bleeding, chronic and debilitating symptoms, perforation of your colon, or a severe blockage. A CT scan or colonoscopy can detect these serious problems.

Surgery involves removing the entire colon with a creation of a new pathway for waste. This pathway can be out through a small opening in the abdominal wall or redirected back through the rectum.

The surgery involves the removal of the entire colon and rectum. A surgeon will make a small opening in the abdominal wall through which the tip of the lower small intestine (the ileum) is brought to the skin’s surface. Waste will drain through the opening into a bag.

If waste is able to be redirected through the rectum, the surgeon removes the diseased part of the colon, but the outer muscles of the rectum remain. The surgeon then attaches the small intestine to the rectum to form a small pouch. After this surgery, the individual is able to pass stool through the rectum. Bowel movements will be more frequent and watery than normal.

How can I prevent ulcerative colitis?

There is no solid evidence that indicates what you eat affects your condition. You may find that certain foods aggravate your symptoms when you have a flare-up. Practices that may help include:

  • drinking small amounts of water throughout the day
  • eating smaller meals throughout the day
  • limiting your intake of high-fiber foods
  • avoiding fatty foods
  • lowering your intake of milk if you’re lactose intolerant (unable to digest lactose)

Also, ask your doctor if you should take a multivitamin.

What is the long-term outlook?

There is no known cure for ulcerative colitis. If you have this condition, your doctor will need to monitor your condition and you will need to carefully follow your treatment plan throughout your life.