If you frequently have abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, fatigue, fever and weight loss, you may have an irritable bowel disease called ulcerative colitis (UC). UC occurs when the lining of the gastrointestinal tract –most typically the colon and rectum--becomes chronically inflamed. When that happens, ulcers can form on the surface of the large intestine. Less commonly, UC also can cause joint pain, eye irritation and certain rashes.
What Is Ulcerative Colitis?
UC is one of two types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The other type of IBD, Crohn’s disease, also is an inflammatory disease. Unlike UC, which affects the colon and rectum, Crohn’s disease can develop anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract — from the mouth to the anus.
IBD also is different from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBD involves inflammation of the organs, while IBS is more of a functional disorder involving muscle contractions of bowel.
About 700,000 Americans are affected by UC, which can affect men and women, most often starting between the ages of 15 and 30. When UC first begins, symptoms are often mild to moderate, and include an urgent need to have a bowel movement, fatigue, nausea or loss of appetite. Approximately 10 percent of those with UC have severe symptoms, such as frequent, bloody bowel movements, fevers, severe abdominal cramping and anemia.
Researchers aren’t sure what causes UC, but believe heredity, immune system and environmental factors may play a role.
Diagnosis and Treatment of UC
To determine if your abdominal distress is caused by UC, you may go to a gastroenterologist or a colorectal surgeon—a doctor who specializes in the digestive tract. By looking at your medical and family history, conducting a physical exam and having blood and stool tests done, your doctor can narrow down the causes. Your doctor also may conduct a colonoscopy, or use imaging studies such as an MRI or computed tomography (CT) to examine inside the large intestine for patches of inflammation.
Because UC is a chronic disease, it requires ongoing treatment and can potentially be cured by surgery. The degree of severity can change, and you may go through periods of remission. It’s key to work closely with your gastroenterologist and medical team to help manage your symptoms and minimize flare-ups.
To reduce inflammation, your doctor may recommend medications, which can be taken orally, by IV or as an enema, rectal foam or suppository. Surgery to remove the damaged portion of the colon and rectum may be necessary if medications are not effective or if the disease causes serious complications.
Your Role in Caring for UC
Because UC is a chronic condition, it is vital to be educated about the disease, prepare for flare-ups, and work closely with your medical team. This means being aware of triggers — such as stress, smoking, taking medicines that irritate the bowel or skipping doses of prescribed medicines — that can affect your symptoms.
Although researchers haven’t found that food causes UC symptoms, it’s always useful to maintain a healthy diet. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend a diet that is high-calorie, lactose-free, low-fat, low-fiber or low-salt.
UC can be difficult to discuss, but it is helpful to talk with your family and friends about it so you don’t have to explain certain behaviors, such as a sudden rush to the bathroom.
Most importantly, keep your gastroenterologist updated on your symptoms. If a medication isn’t working or has undesirable side effects, or if you have new symptoms, let your medical team know.
Taking a proactive role in managing UC will help you address and minimize the symptoms of this chronic disease.
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