Along with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is one of the major types of inflammatory bowel disease. A chronic illness, ulcerative colitis causes long-lasting inflammation and sores in the digestive tract. It is estimated that around 1.3% of adults in the US are diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Here are a few things to know about this health disorder.
Common causes of ulcerative colitis (UC)
There is no exact known cause of UC. According to multiple studies, there are three factors that play a critical role in the development of the condition.
- An overactive intestinal immune system
Any of the above factors can trigger UC.
- Genes: In some cases, UC runs in the family. Based on some studies, it has been observed that some people with ulcerative colitis have abnormal genes. However, there have been no significant studies done to indicate a direct link between UC and genes.
- Environment: For some people, the environment can be one of the major triggers of ulcerative colitis. Environmental triggers include medications, foods, and emotional distress. Although there are few studies to suggest that stress causes UC, it definitely triggers a flare-up. Food and medication to an extent can contribute to the development of UC. Medications that trigger UC include NSAIDs, oral contraceptives, and antibiotics. A diet rich in unhealthy fats also increases the risk of UC.
- Overactive intestinal immune system: The immune system’s main function is to protect the body from allergies and infection by attacking anti-bodies like viruses and bacteria. However, the immune system may get triggered by a bacteria or virus. This may cause the immune system to attack the inner lining of the large intestines. This can cause inflammation and trigger UC symptoms.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis
Most people with UC experience abdominal discomfort and diarrhea with pus or blood. Other common symptoms include the following:
- Rectal pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
A few people with UC may also experience some of the less common symptoms such as joint pain, soreness, eye irritation, and rashes. In the initial days, the intensity of the symptoms can range from mild to moderate. Severe symptoms such as frequent, bloody bowel movements, severe abdominal cramping, and fever are quite rare and only experienced by around 10% of people with UC.
How is it diagnosed?
Ulcerative colitis is diagnosed based on several factors. A healthcare professional will usually use a combination of the following for correct diagnosis of UC.
- Physical exam for checking abdominal distension, swelling, tenderness, and pain
- Lab tests including blood and stool tests
- Medical and family history
- Endoscopy of the large intestine including colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy
Medical tests may also be suggested to eliminated other bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or IBS. These have symptoms similar to ulcerative colitis.
The treatment of ulcerative colitis usually involves medication therapies; in severe cases, a doctor may also recommend surgery. Medications in the following categories are usually prescribed—aminosalicylates, corticosteroids, immunomodulators, and biologics. Medication therapies usually involve a lot of trials since not everyone with UC experiences the same results.
Doctors recommend surgery if a person experiences extreme side effects from medications. Additionally, aminosalicylates are also recommended when UC rapidly progresses to something more severe such as colon cancer, dysplasia, and megacolon.