Definition & Overview
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the colon and rectum. In most cases, the disease affects sigmoid colon, the lower section of the large intestine. However, it can also affect the entire colon, resulting in more severe symptoms.
This condition is primarily characterized by inflammation of the lining of the large intestine accompanied by sores and ulcers. People past the age of 30 have a higher risk of developing ulcerative colitis, although anybody can be affected.
Cause of Condition
Health experts are not certain as to what causes ulcerative colitis. Theories suggest that it is an overreaction of the immune system to the normal bacteria present in the digestive tract, while other cases suggest that foreign and harmful bacteria and viruses may be responsible.
Genetics also play a role, as people with family history of the disease are found to be more likely to get it as well.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis tend to come and go; there may be short or long flare-ups or attacks, as well as short or long periods of remission, when a patient does not feel any symptoms at all.
The main symptoms of ulcerative colitis include the following:
- Abdominal pain that gets worse when the belly is touched or pressed
- Diarrhea – In severe cases of the disease, a person may have bouts of diarrhea as many as 20 times per day.
- Rectal bleeding
- Mucus in the stool
Some less common symptoms include:
Over the course of the disease, it may cause other health problems including the following:
- Joint pain
- Eye pain
- Liver problems
Patients who have been suffering from ulcerative colitis symptoms for eight years or longer are advised by medical professionals to have cancer screening. This is because the longer you have ulcerative colitis, the greater your risk of getting colon cancer. Regular cancer screening can help catch colon cancer early, which greatly increases your chances of fighting the disease.
Who to See & Types of Treatments Available
If you experience any of the symptoms above, it is best to see your primary care physician or family doctor, who can diagnose the condition by conducting several tests.
After evaluating your symptoms, your doctor will perform a physical examination and run tests, which include the following:
Blood tests – Blood tests can show whether inflammation or infection is present in the body.
Stool sample – Like blood tests, stool samples can determine the presence of infection through the presence of white blood cells. Your doctor will also check whether you have blood in your stools, as this is a telltale sign of a colon problem.
Colonoscopy – This is a test wherein a thin lighted equipment is inserted into the colon to check for inflammation or the presence of ulcers. During the procedure, your doctor may take a sample of the colon’s lining and run it in the laboratory; this is called a biopsy.
It is important to test for ulcerative colitis carefully since a number of other diseases may cause similar symptoms such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, diverticulitis, or colon cancer.
Once diagnosed, your doctor will discuss treatment options. Since ulcerative colitis affects patients differently, treatment plans will also differ from one patient to the next. However, all treatment plans will focus on achieving two goals:
- Avoiding flare-ups or attacks
- Reducing or relieving symptoms
Thus, the treatment plan will have to depend on how often the symptoms tend to arise and how severe they are.
For mild symptoms, treatment may consist only of an over-the-counter medication for diarrhea. However, if symptoms are more severe, your doctor may prescribe some medications, such as steroid medicines, aminosalicylates, and special medications that suppress or reduce the responses of the immune system.
Studies also show that the symptoms of ulcerative colitis may be triggered by certain foods, so patients are also advised to follow strict healthy diets. Before the right diet can be determined, however, it is important to try and find out which types of food trigger flare-ups. It helps to be conscious of what you eat, and if you experience symptoms, try to list down the food items that you have recently eaten. In time, this will help you identify the food items that cause your attacks so you can stay away from them.
For cases where symptoms are too severe and medications or proper diet are not helping, you may require surgery wherein your colon will be removed. The removal of the colon will cure ulcerative colitis for good, and it will also prevent colon cancer. However, doctors only recommend surgical colon removal for the most severe cases because it is an invasive surgery with considerable risks. It is only performed when its potential benefits outweigh the risks of invasive surgery.
Unless surgery is performed, ulcerative colitis can bother a person for years. Although difficult to live with, this condition can be managed so that a person can lead a normal lifestyle.
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