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What is Ulcerative Colitis?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Ulcerative colitis is a challenging disease with causes that are not fully known by the medical community. The condition may be caused by having formerly contracted a virus or bacterial infection, or it might be genetic, since people who have family with the ulcerative colitis are more likely to develop it too. Through various treatments, this disease, which affects the lining of the rectum and colon, creating mild to severe inflammation and sometimes resulting in ulceration of the these areas, may be managed but is not curable. Severe cases can prove extremely debilitating and may require not only medical but also therapeutic support in order to help people deal with life changes that may result.

The main symptoms of ulcerative colitis can vary because the affected area of the colon can be different. There are essentially four recognized types of ulcerated colitis based on where inflammation occurs and symptoms that develop. Some people get inflammation and swelling in their rectum only, without the disease affecting the colon. This is called ulcerative proctitis, and usually results in trouble passing bowel movements and bleeding from the rectum.

Ulcerative proctitis may never develop into disease that affects the whole colon, but this varies. The whole colon can be effected in pancolitis, which can create terrible cramps, excessive sweating, diarrhea that may be bloody, and weight loss. The most serious form of ulcerative colitis is called fulminant colitis, which can lead to the colon rupturing. Pain with this condition is extreme, and diarrhea frequent. With all forms of ulcerative colitis, cramps and bloody diarrhea are common symptoms.

You should see a doctor if you have these symptoms, especially if they last longer than a couple of days and always if you have blood in your stool. Doctors are likely to evaluate you based on a variety of tests, which can include colonoscopy, rectal exam, blood tests, x-rays and barium enema. Sometimes this form of colitis is confused with Crohn’s disease. The main difference is that the inflammation is usually limited to a single stretch of the colon and does not affect other areas of the intestine.

Treatment for ulcerative colitis is based on type, symptoms and severity. Many people are prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs but these are not non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen. In fact, NSAIDS can worsen this form of colitis and are not recommended. Sometimes medications like immune suppressants may be used, and drugs like pain relievers, medications that help stop diarrhea, and meds to treat anemia may be helpful. Risk of anemia is high since bleeding in the colon can make it difficult to maintain healthy levels of iron.

Symptoms of ulcerative colitis may become so severe that the patient requires surgery. In surgeries, doctors remove all or most of the rectum and colon to prevent further inflammation. Until recently, patients who had this surgery would then need to wear a bag on the exterior of their body to collect waste. A new surgery has changed that, allowing people to have bowel movements, though these occur on a much more frequent basis.

Since the condition can cause so many life changes, support groups or work with a therapist can be of significant assistance. Not all people affected will end up with extremely severe symptoms, but even minor ulcerative colitis may cause significant pain and many bathroom visits, which can make pursuing normal activities challenging.

Some patients suffer from keen embarrassment because of excessive gas and frequent need to use the bathroom. Having to mention or cope with these symptoms that most people keep very private can prevent people from wanting to do much with others and may be very isolating. Support groups like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America may be great places to start in finding support and information about this condition.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Jun 01, 2014

@Soulfox -- and that is what is frustrating about ulcerative colitis -- no one is sure what causes it and that makes treating and managing it difficult. My doctor has told me to do everything from avoiding dairy products to cutting down on coffee and few things seem to work.

By Soulfox — On Jun 01, 2014

It is true that there is a lot of disagreement over what causes ulcerative colitis, but a number of doctors have discovered that high stress levels can cause the illness to flare up. Stress management, in the opinion of a lot of doctors, will tell you is the key to managing ulcerative colitis.

By Logicfest — On May 31, 2014

Another problem with ulcerative colitis is that there is an increased risk of colon cancer. That is why patients diagnosed with that condition are required to have a colonoscopy every two years (on average). The way to lessen that risk of cancer to about nothing is to have the affected section of the colon removed.

Of course, that comes with its own set of problems and potential for embarrassment.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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