Although it was rare before the 20th century, diverticular disease is now one of the most common health problems in the Western world. It’s a group of conditions that can affect your digestive tract.
The most serious type of diverticular disease is diverticulitis. It can cause uncomfortable symptoms and, in some cases, serious complications. If left untreated, these complications can cause long-term health problems.
Read on to learn more about diverticulitis, including its causes, symptoms, treatment options, and how your diet might affect your risk of developing it.
Diverticulitis can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. These symptoms can appear suddenly or they can develop gradually over several days.
Potential symptoms of diverticular disease include:
If you develop diverticulitis, you might experience:
- constant or severe pain in your abdomen
- nausea and vomiting
- fever and chills
- blood in your stool
- bleeding from your rectum
Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of diverticulitis. It will mostly likely occur in the lower left side of your abdomen. But it can also develop in the right side of your abdomen.
If you develop any of the above symptoms, such as vomiting or blood in your stool, it may be a sign of a serious complication from diverticulitis or another condition. Call your doctor right away.
Diverticular disease develops when pouches form along your digestive tract, typically in your colon (large intestine). These pouches are known as diverticula. They form when weak spots in your intestinal wall balloon outward.
Diverticulitis happens when diverticula become inflamed and in some cases infected. This can occur when feces or partially digested food blocks the opening of the diverticula.
There’s no single known cause of diverticular disease. Instead, experts believe that multiple genetic and environmental factors likely contribute to its development.
To diagnose diverticulitis, your doctor will likely ask you about your symptoms, health history, and any medications that you take. They’ll likely perform a physical exam to check your abdomen for tenderness or, if they need more information, a digital rectal exam to check for rectal bleeding, pain, masses, or other problems.
Several other conditions can cause symptoms that are similar to diverticulitis. To rule out other conditions and check for signs of diverticulitis, your doctor might order one or more tests.
Tests can include:
- abdominal ultrasound, abdominal MRI scan, abdominal CT scan, or abdominal X-ray to create pictures of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract
- colonoscopy to examine the inside of your GI tract
- stool test to check for infections, such as Clostridium difficile
- urine test to check for infections
- blood tests to check for signs of inflammation, anemia, or kidney or liver problems
- pelvic exam to rule out gynecological problems in women
- pregnancy test to rule out pregnancy in women
If you have diverticulitis, these exams and tests can help your doctor learn if it’s uncomplicated or complicated.
of diverticulitis cases are uncomplicated, leaving about 25 percent to develop complications.
These complications can include:
- abscess, an infected pocket that’s filled with pus
- phlegmon, an infected area that’s less well-confined than an abscess
- fistula, an abnormal connection that can develop between two organs or between an organ and the skin
- intestinal perforation, a tear or hole in the intestinal wall that can allow the contents of your colon to leak into your abdominal cavity, causing inflammation and infection
- intestinal obstruction, a blockage in your intestine that can stop stool from passing
The treatment that your doctor prescribes for diverticulitis will depend on how severe your condition is.
Uncomplicated diverticulitis can typically be treated at home. Your doctor might encourage you to make changes to your diet. In some cases, they might prescribe medications including antibiotics.
If you develop complications from diverticulitis, you’ll probably need to visit a hospital for treatment. You may be given fluids and antibiotics through an intravenous (IV) line. Depending on the type of complication, you might need to undergo surgery or another procedure.
To give your digestive system a chance to rest and recover, your doctor might suggest avoiding solid foods and following a clear-liquid diet for a few days.
If your symptoms are mild or have started to improve, you may be able to try eating low-fiber foods until your condition gets better. As your condition improves, your doctor will likely encourage you to add more high-fiber foods to your snacks and meals.
To reduce pain or discomfort from diverticulitis, your doctor might recommend over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).
If they suspect that you have an infection, they’ll prescribe antibiotics to treat it. These include:
It’s important to take your full course of prescribed antibiotics, even if your symptoms improve after the first few doses.
If you develop a complicated case of diverticulitis that can’t be treated through diet and medication alone, your doctor might recommend one of the following procedures:
- needle drainage, where a needle is inserted into your abdomen to drain an abscess of pus
- surgery to drain an abscess of pus, repair a fistula, or remove infected segments of the colon
If you experience multiple episodes of diverticulitis that can’t be effectively managed with dietary changes and medications, your doctor might recommend surgery. Surgery may also be used to treat complications from diverticulitis.
There are two main types of surgery used to treat diverticulitis.
Bowel resection with anastomosis
During a bowel resection with anastomosis, a surgeon removes infected segments of your colon and reattaches the healthy segments to each other.
Bowel resection with colostomy
In a bowel resection with colostomy, the surgeon removes infected sections of your colon and attaches the end of the healthy section to an opening in your abdomen, known as a stoma.
Both procedures can be performed as open surgery or laparoscopic surgery. Learn more about the types of surgery that can be used to treat diverticulitis.
Experts aren’t yet sure about the role that diet plays in diverticulitis. There are no particular foods that everyone with diverticulitis has to avoid. But you might find that certain foods make your condition better or worse.
During an acute attack of diverticulitis, your doctor might encourage you to reduce your fiber intake for a while. They might advise you to avoid solid foods altogether and stick to a clear-liquid diet for a few days. This can give your digestive system a chance to rest.
As your symptoms improve, your doctor might encourage you to eat more high-fiber foods. Some studies have linked high-fiber diets to reduced risk of diverticulitis. Other have examined possible benefits of dietary or supplemental fiber for diverticular disease, but are still unsure of the role fiber should play.
Your doctor might also encourage you to limit your consumption of red meat, high-fat dairy products, and refined grain products. A large cohort study found that people who follow a diet that’s rich in these foods are more likely to develop diverticulitis than people who eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Diet can play a role in managing diverticulitis and your overall digestive health. Take a moment to learn about some of the foods that might affect your symptoms.
Home remedies for diverticulitis mostly consist of making dietary changes, but there are a few other options that may be helpful for symptoms and digestive health.
Some studies have found that certain strains of probiotics might help relieve or prevent symptoms of diverticulitis. More research is needed to assess the potential benefits and risks of using probiotics to treat diverticulitis.
Certain herbs or supplements might also have benefits for your digestive health. However, there’s currently little research to support the use of herbal remedies for diverticulitis. Read more about the home remedies that might help you manage this condition.
Diverticular disease usually affects adults. But in rare cases, babies are born with diverticula. When this happens, it’s known as Meckel’s diverticulum. If the diverticula become inflamed, it’s called Meckel’s diverticulitis.
In some cases, Meckel’s diverticulum doesn’t cause noticeable effects. In other cases, it can cause symptoms such as:
- abdominal pain
- bloody stool
- bleeding from the rectum
If you suspect that your child might have diverticulitis, make an appointment with their doctor. Learn about some of the strategies pediatricians can use to diagnose and manage Meckel’s diverticulum.
If you have symptoms of diverticulitis, your doctor might encourage you to have a colonoscopy once the acute episode resolves. This procedure can help confirm a diagnosis of diverticulitis or another condition that causes similar symptoms, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
During a colonoscopy, your doctor will thread a flexible scope into your rectum and colon. They can use this scope to examine the inside of your colon. They can also use it to collect tissue samples for testing.
To help you feel more comfortable during this procedure, you will be sedated beforehand.
In some cases, your doctor might learn that you have diverticula during a routine colonoscopy. If the diverticula aren’t inflamed, infected, or causing symptoms, you probably won’t need treatment.
More research is needed to learn what causes diverticular disease, including diverticulitis. Currently, experts believe that multiple factors play a part. Some of your potential risk factors may be modified through lifestyle changes.
For example, it might help to:
- maintain a healthy body weight
- eat a diet that’s high in fiber
- limit your consumption of saturated fat
- get enough vitamin D
- get regular exercise
- avoid cigarette smoke
These prevention strategies can also help promote good overall health.
One of the main risk factors for diverticulitis is age. Older people are more likely than younger people to develop diverticulitis. It in men under 50 and women ages 50 to 70.
But people who develop diverticula at a younger age may be more likely to experience diverticulitis. Younger people are also to be admitted to a hospital if they have diverticulitis than older people.
According to a review of research published in 2018, other potential risk factors for diverticulitis include:
Two large twin studies have found that genetics play a role in diverticular disease. The authors estimate that roughly 40 to 50 percent of the potential risk of diverticular disease is hereditary.
Some research has linked low-fiber diets to increased risk of diverticulitis. However, other studies have found no link between dietary fiber intake and this disease.
Low levels of vitamin D
suggests that people with higher levels of vitamin D might have a lower risk for getting diverticulitis. More research is needed to understand the potential link between vitamin D and this condition.
Several studies have found that people with higher body mass index and larger waists are at increased risk of diverticulitis.
It’s possible that obesity raises the risk of diverticulitis by changing the balance of bacteria in your gut, but more research is needed to understand the role that this plays.
Some have found that physically active people are less likely than inactive people to develop diverticulitis. However, other research has found no link between exercise and this condition.
Using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or smoking
Regular use of aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs may raise your risk of diverticulitis.
Smokers are also more likely than nonsmokers to develop diverticular disease, including diverticulitis.
If you have diverticula that aren’t infected or inflamed, it’s known as diverticulosis.
Researchers report that in about 80 percent of cases, diverticulosis doesn’t cause any symptoms. If you have diverticulosis without symptoms, you probably won’t need treatment.
But in other cases, diverticulosis can cause symptoms such as pain in the abdomen and bloating. When that happens, it’s known as symptomatic uncomplicated diverticular disease (SUDD).
About 4 percent of people with SUDD eventually develop diverticulitis.
Diverticula can also develop in your bladder. This happens when the lining of your bladder forms pouches, poking through weak spots in your bladder’s wall.
Sometimes bladder diverticula are present at birth. In other cases, they develop later in life. They can form when your bladder outlet is blocked or your bladder isn’t working properly due to illness or injury.
If you have bladder diverticula that becomes inflamed, it’s known as bladder diverticulitis. To treat bladder diverticulitis, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics and pain medications. They might also recommend surgery to repair the diverticula.
It’s also possible for diverticulitis in your colon to affect your bladder. In severe cases, you might develop a fistula between your colon and bladder. This is known as a colovesical fistula. Find out what this condition involves.
Diverticula can potentially form in your esophagus, too. This occurs when pouches develop in your esophageal lining.
Esophageal diverticula are rare. When they do develop, it’s usually slowly and over many years. As they grow, they can cause symptoms or complications such as:
- trouble swallowing
- pain when swallowing
- halitosis, or bad breath
- regurgitation of food and saliva
- pulmonary aspiration; breathing regurgitated food or saliva into your lungs
- aspiration pneumonia; developing a lung infection after breathing in food or saliva
If the diverticula become inflamed, it’s known as esophageal diverticulitis.
To treat esophageal diverticulitis, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics and pain medications. To repair the diverticula, they might recommend surgery. Get more information about your treatment options.
In the past, some studies suggested that drinking alcohol might increase your risk of diverticulitis. But other studies have found no such link.
According to a review of research published in 2017, there’s that drinking alcohol raises your risk of this disease.
If you drink alcohol, your doctor will likely encourage you to drink in moderation only. Although alcohol consumption might not cause diverticulitis, drinking too much can raise your risk of many other health problems.
Diverticulitis is relatively common in the Western world. In most cases, it can be treated through short-term dietary changes and medication.
But if complications develop, they can be very serious. If you have complicated diverticulitis, your doctor will likely advise you to get treatment in a hospital. You might need to undergo surgery to repair damage to your colon.
If you have diverticulitis or questions about your risk of developing it, speak with your doctor. They can help you learn how to treat this disease and support your digestive health.