Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong condition that can cause inflammation and ulcers within the colon.
Ulcerative colitis—one of the conditions collectively referred to as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—occurs when inflammation and ulcers (open sores) develop in the colon (large intestine). There are various types of ulcerative colitis, which are categorized based on where the inflammation occurs:
- Ulcerative proctitis – Inflammation occurs only in the rectum and the lower portion of the colon.
- Distal colitis – Inflammation occurs only on the left side of the colon.
- Pancolitis – The entire colon is inflamed.
Some people use the terms “colitis” and “ulcerative colitis” interchangeably, but they actually refer to two different conditions. While colitis is often caused by bacterial or viral infections that can be cured by antibiotics, ulcerative colitis is a lifelong condition that currently has no cure.
Causes of Ulcerative Colitis
Researchers are working to determine the exact cause of ulcerative colitis, but studies suggest that it’s likely caused by an overactive immune response. The following risk factors can increase the chances of developing this condition:
- Being between the ages of 15 and 30 or over age 60
- Eating fatty foods
- Frequently taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- A family history of IBD
Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis
Many individuals with ulcerative colitis experience only mild symptoms at first, which may include:
- An urgent need to use the bathroom (in some cases, this urge is so strong that it causes a person to wake up in the middle of the night)
- Abdominal cramping
- Weight loss
Ulcerative colitis is a progressive condition that tends to worsen over time. Once it reaches a more advanced stage, symptoms may include:
- Stools containing blood, mucus or pus
- Severe abdominal cramping
- Joint pain
- A skin rash
- Pain and redness in the eyes
- Sores within the mouth
- Liver disease
These symptoms may be constant or intermittent. Although there’s currently no cure for ulcerative colitis, many individuals experience periods of remission in between flare-ups. There are a number of factors that can trigger a flare-up, including being stressed, using NSAIDs or antibiotics, drinking carbonated beverages or alcohol and eating foods high in fiber, sugar or grease.
Ulcerative colitis can increase the risk of colon perforation and colon cancer. It can also lead to seemingly unrelated complications, possibly due to the link between inflammation and the immune system. These may include arthritis, osteoporosis, eye inflammation and liver disease. And when ulcerative colitis affects children, it may also cause growth problems.
Diagnosing Ulcerative Colitis
In addition to asking questions about a patient’s personal and family medical history and performing a physical examination, physicians may order the following tests to diagnose ulcerative colitis:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Computed tomography (CT) scans
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
Treatment for Ulcerative Colitis
While there’s currently no cure for ulcerative colitis, the gastroenterologists at Tampa General Hospital may still be able to reduce a patient’s inflammation and relieve symptoms using prescription medication. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary.