What is the Effect of Smoking on Ulcerative Colitis?

B. Schreiber
B. Schreiber
Cigarettes in an ashtray.
Cigarettes in an ashtray.

The effect of smoking on ulcerative colitis is the subject of ongoing scientific research. It has been established that nonsmokers are much more likely to be afflicted with ulcerative colitis than smokers, at a rate that is about three times greater for nonsmokers. The reasons for this are unclear and may involve different pathways. Present-day speculative treatments, and future treatments that might become more established, could involve the use of nicotine patches or gum for treating ulcerative colitis. But using nicotine as a treatment is far from ideal, and smoking should never be recommended as a way to treat any condition, disease, or symptom.

Woman smoking a cigarette.
Woman smoking a cigarette.

Ulcerative colitis is usually classified as a type of inflammatory bowel disease in which the mucous membrane of the large intestine becomes inflamed. The term colitis refers specifically to inflammation of the colon, or large intestine, including the rectum. Ulcers in this case are sores on the mucous membrane of the colon. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloody stools, among others.

A human colon.
A human colon.

The causes of ulcerative colitis are not fully understood, which makes it difficult to pin down the specific effects of smoking on ulcerative colitis. Colitis can result from infections or environmental irritants, but can also occur in the absence of an obvious cause. It is also thought to occur from abnormal immune responses to beneficial bacteria that normally inhabit the colon. These potential causes have given rise to possible reasons for the positive effect of smoking on ulcerative colitis.

Prescription medication for ulcerative colitis.
Prescription medication for ulcerative colitis.

The beneficial effect of smoking on ulcerative colitis may stem from a suppressed immune system. If uclerative colitis is caused by an overactive immune system, it would make intuitive sense that suppressing the immune system would decrease colitis symptoms. Nicotine, found in cigarettes, also seems to increase mucus production in the colon, which would offer another benefit by bolstering this protective covering. Nicotine may also lower the production of some chemicals responsible for inflammation.

A lighter.
A lighter.

Various studies have found conflicting evidence for patients assigned to a nicotine patch for treatment of colitis. Some experts have recommended trying a nicotine patch in conjunction with traditional treatments like drugs that suppress the immune system or keep down inflammation. Smoking is never recommended as a treatment, but side effects from nicotine patches might be decreased in some cases by using nicotine gum. Nevertheless, nicotine raises the risk for some cancers, impairs healing, and is itself highly addictive. For these reasons, first consult a doctor about nicotine therapy for ulcerative colitis.

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    • Cigarettes in an ashtray.
      By: Oleg Zinkovetsky
      Cigarettes in an ashtray.
    • Woman smoking a cigarette.
      Woman smoking a cigarette.
    • A human colon.
      By: Stockerteam
      A human colon.
    • Prescription medication for ulcerative colitis.
      By: Andrew S.
      Prescription medication for ulcerative colitis.
    • A lighter.
      By: FocalPoint
      A lighter.