Ulcerative Colitis

What is ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis belongs to a group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Ulcerative colitis is a chronic (recurrent or long-lasting) inflammation of the digestive system. Ulcerative colitis usually affects the colon (large intestine or bowel) and the rectum (the last part of the bowel, ending with the anus). The main symptoms are recurring diarrhea, often with blood or pus, and cramping pain in the belly. Treatment involves anti-inflammatory medication to treat severe episodes and reduce the frequency of episodes of symptoms. Ulcerative colitis is a life-long condition which can be managed but not cured.

Risks

Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's immune system mistakenly harms healthy body tissue. This process (inflammation) causes the bowel to swell and bleed, and affects the ability of the bowel to take up nutrients. Although the condition can affect any age group, most people develop ulcerative colitis between the ages of 15 and 30 years or between 50 and 70 years of age. Diet and stress do not cause the disease but may aggravate it. Having a blood relative with ulcerative colitis increases a person's chance of developing this condition.

Symptoms

Typical symptoms include prolonged diarrhea and abdominal cramps. There may be blood and pus in the bowel movements. People with ulcerative colitis may also often feel an urgent need to open their bowels, sometimes without passing stool. This condition can also cause tiredness, fever and weight loss.

Diagnosis

The standard test to diagnose ulcerative colitis is a colonoscopy (a camera inserted through the anus to look at the bowel). A sample (biopsy) of the bowel will be taken and tested to confirm the diagnosis. Some blood tests may be necessary to monitor inflammation and check for complications, such as anemia. A stool sample may be needed to exclude other causes of persistent diarrhea and belly pain.

Treatment

Taking anti-inflammatory medications to suppress the inflammatory reaction in the bowel is the most common treatment. This treatment can help suppress the severe episodes or prolong illness-free intervals, but does not cure the condition. Reducing the intake of dairy products, fatty foods and fiber may help to reduce symptoms. Consulting a dietitian may be helpful.

Other Names for Ulcerative Colitis

  • Colitis ulcerosa