Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation of the large intestine, also known as the colon. Doctors categorize ulcerative colitis as a type of inflammatory bowel disease.
The large intestine is part of the digestive system. Its job is to absorb water and salts from the material the body has not already digested. Your large intestine is also responsible for the formation and storage of feces, and for fermenting some indigestible food matter to make it easier to digest.
In ulcerative colitis, the lining of the large intestine becomes inflamed and develops open sores, known as ulcers. These ulcers produce mucus and pus, which causes abdominal pain and feeling like you need to empty your bowels frequently.
Ulcerative colitis symptoms can vary, depending on the severity of inflammation and where it occurs. Depending on which part of the colon is affected, symptoms may include:
- Diarrhea, often with blood or puss
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Rectal pain or bleeding during bowel movements
- Unexplained weight loss
The exact cause of ulcerative colitis is unknown. Previously, diet and stress were suspected, but now doctors know these may aggravate, but don't cause colitis. When your body tries to fight off a virus or bacterium, an abnormal response causes the immune system to attack cells in the digestive tract. Some risk factors may include age (colitis often begins before age 30) and family history.
Complications of Ulcerative Colitis
Chronic bleeding from ulcerative colitis can cause a shortage of red blood cells, a condition known as anemia. Because ulcerative colitis interferes with nutrient absorption, some people with the condition may experience weight loss or problems with their skin, eyes, joints, liver or kidneys.
Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on your medical history, a physical examination and various tests. Following this, your provider will typically evaluate your colon, using a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.
The primary goal in treating ulcerative colitis is to help patients regulate their immune system better. While there is no known cure for ulcerative colitis and flare ups may recur, a combination of treatment options can help you stay in control of your disease and maintain a high quality of life.
Treatment for ulcerative colitis and other IBDs can include medication, lifestyle and diet changes, and sometimes surgical procedures to repair or remove affected portions of your GI tract.
Frequently Asked Questions about Ulcerative Colitis
What causes ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis is the result of several factors that researchers are still working to fully understand. A number of factors, such as genetics, the balance of good and bad bacteria in the intestine, and environmental influences, may contribute to the development of ulcerative colitis.
Does the immune system play a role in ulcerative colitis?
An overactive immune system is one possible cause of ulcerative colitis. Normally, your immune system protects you from bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other pathogens. Your immune system often causes temporary inflammation to help rinse away pathogens and deliver white blood cells (WBCs) and other healing substances to the affected area of the body. Inflammation typically disappears once you are healthy and free of the pathogens.
In people with ulcerative colitis, inflammation continues longer than it should. The body continues to send WBCs into the lining of the intestines, where the white blood cells can produce ulcers and chronic inflammation.
Does heredity play a role?
Heredity may also play a role. About 10 to 25 percent of people with ulcerative colitis have a parent or sibling with the condition.
How many people in the United States have ulcerative colitis?
About a million people in the US have ulcerative colitis.
When does ulcerative colitis usually develop?
Ulcerative colitis usually develops between the ages of 15 and 30, although it can appear at any age. Inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis can flare several times through life to cause recurring signs and symptoms.