Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a disease of the large intestine (colon) characterized by inflammation of the lining of the intestinal tract and rectal bleeding. It, along with anther condition called Crohn’s disease, falls into the category of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease that comes in waves or “flare-ups.” The most common symptoms of a flare-up are bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain. Excessive blood loss can lead to fatigue as a result of anemia.
Ulcerative colitis is NOT irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Cramping, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel regularity are common with irritable bowel syndrome.
Who is Affected?
Though ulcerative colitis can occur at any age in a person’s life, the most common groups affected are the 15 to 30 and 50 to 70 year olds. Reasons for this are not known, and the etiology, or origin of the disease, is not clear. An estimated one million Americans suffer from IBD, split about equally between ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s.
Possible Causes of UC
Suspected causes for this inflammatory bowel disease are:
Immune deficiencies in the bowels.
Some people spontaneously stop having flare ups. About one third of affected individuals require surgical treatment, which often results in a full cure. Most cases of ulcerative colitis can be controlled through dietary measures, such as limiting fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal of dietary treatment is to reduce irritation to the large intestine. Medications, such as anti-diarrheal preparations and steroids, are also effective at controlling symptoms.
Is UC a Serious Condition?
The answer is, “Yes, it can become quite serious.” UC can cause complications, such as internal hemorrhaging and perforations of the large intestine, thus posing a risk for blood loss and infection. The risk for colon cancer is increased significantly in those with UC. In addition, a person with UC is also at risk for other health conditions not associated with the colon, such as skin rashes and liver disease.
Ulcerative proctitis, an inflammation limited to the rectal mucosa (lining), carries significantly less risk of hemorrhage, perforation, colon cancer, or any of the other complications of UC. Proctitis can be treated effectively with medication. Approximately thirty percent of individuals with UC first have ulcerative proctitis.
Ulcerative Colitis Vs. Crohn’s Disease
A condition commonly confused with UC is Crohn’s disease. Fistulas, or tubular pockets in the anal area, are characteristic of Crohn’s, while UC does not manifest this way. People with Crohn’s disease typically have more sores around the anus than those with UC.
|Ulcerative Colitis||Crohn’s Disease|
|Limited to large intestine.||Affects small and large intestines in 80% of cases.|
|Rectal bleeding present in all cases.||Rectal bleeding present in 75-85% of cases.|
|No significant perianal (around the anus) sores.||Significant perianal sores present in 25-35% of cases.|
|Fistulas do not occur.||Fistulas common.|
|Inflammation of intestinal lining (mucosa) is uniform and spread evenly.||The intestinal lining appears patchy with spots of ulceration and normal tissue (called “skips”).|