Allergic colitis is an inflammatory bowel disorder that is usually seen in very young infants. It is related to an intolerance of certain proteins found in breast milk and over-the-counter formulas. In most cases, allergic colitis is mild and infants do not experience many noticeable symptoms. Severe allergies, however, can cause rectal bleeding, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and failure to thrive. The condition can usually be corrected by eliminating the offensive proteins from the mother's diet or switching to a different type of formula.
The exact causes of allergic colitis are not always clear, but doctors believe that problems are related to abnormal immune system responses. When the intestines are incapable of breaking down and digesting certain proteins, the immune system mistakes them for harmful pathogens and triggers inflammation. Premature infants and babies who suffer from malnutrition are at the highest risk of developing colitis since their intestines may not be fully developed. The condition tends to appear before the second month of life and can last up to one year.
The most common symptom of allergic colitis is soft bowel movements that have traces of blood. Many infants do not experience any other symptoms, and they are able to continue feeding normally. In serious cases, babies may have bloody diarrhea, nausea, and irritability. They may stop accepting food due to loss of appetite, and show resulting signs of malnutrition. Rarely, blood loss in the stools is severe enough to induce anemia.
A pediatrician can usually diagnose allergic colitis based on the presentation of symptoms. Blood and stool samples may be collected and tested to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, such as bacterial or parasitic infections. In the case of severe allergic colitis, the doctor might decide to conduct a colonoscopy to carefully inspect damaged tissue in the large intestine.
Allergic colitis does not normally respond to direct treatment. It is possible, however, to relieve symptoms and prevent severe episodes by simply removing milk proteins from a baby's diet. A doctor can try a food challenge to determine which breast milk proteins are involved. A mother is instructed to eliminate certain foods, such as cow milk, eggs, wheat, and fish, from her diet to see if her baby's symptoms get better. If an infant uses formula, parents can try switching to a soy mixture or a specialized hypoallergenic formula to see if symptoms improve.
Most babies who recover from allergic colitis do not experience lasting complications. Symptoms tend to improve quickly after eliminating milk proteins, and babies begin to eat better and develop on schedule. As children and adults, previous sufferers can usually consume milk products regularly without problems.