Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition in which small ulcers and inflammation develop on the inner lining of the colon and the rectum. Along with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); however, ulcerative colitis (UC) affects only the large intestine, whereas Crohn’s disease can develop in any part of the digestive tract.
The exact cause of UC is unknown, but it is believed to be an autoimmune disease. Researchers hypothesize that the body misidentifies healthy bacteria in the colon and rectum as hazardous, and as a result, the immune system attacks the tissue of the large intestine. Environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a part in triggering this autoimmune malfunctioning.
Approximately two to five people in every 1,000 are affected by ulcerative colitis, with Caucasian people of European descent being the most at risk of developing the disease. Symptoms commonly begin to appear between the ages of 15 and 30.
How does ulcerative colitis affects the body?
The most common symptoms of UC include abdominal discomfort, anemia, and frequent diarrhea containing blood or mucus. Patients typically experience some level of fatigue and loss of appetite, as well.
It is common to have weeks or months of mild symptoms intermingled with periods of severe symptoms, known as flare-ups or relapses. During a flare-up, patients may develop systemic effects of the disease, including arthritis, mouth ulcers, inflammation of the skin and the eyes, fever, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeat.
How is ulcerative colitis diagnosed?
If ulcerative colitis is suspected, a physician will typically request blood tests to check whether a person with the symptoms of the disease is also anemic. A fecal blood test may also be completed to check for blood in the stool, which can exclude infection as the cause of gastrointestinal distress.
Medical imaging, in the form of X-ray, CT scan, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or MRI, may also be ordered to complete a visual assessment of the large intestine. As there are no tests that directly indicate that a patient has ulcerative colitis, the physician will rule out all other possible causes for symptoms using the results of the above tests to confirm a diagnosis.
How is ulcerative colitis treated?
There is no known cure for ulcerative colitis, so treatment is focused on reducing the symptoms of the disease. Anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant medications can be used to limit inflammation within the large intestine, though some of these therapies may cause severe side effects. Physicians also prescribe anti-diarrheal medications, pain relievers, and iron supplements to combat specific symptoms.
Approximately one-quarter to one-third of patients do not find relief with medicinal therapies and may need to resort to surgery, specifically a proctocolectomy, where the colon and rectum are surgically removed.
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