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What Is Ulcerative Colitis?


Friday, September 25th, 2015

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is one type of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), which also includes Crohn’s disease. IBD affects about 1.3 million individuals in the US.

As the name indicates, UC is characterized by ulcers that involve the rectum and other areas of the colon. In some instances, the whole colon is ulcerated and inflamed. Sometimes, the inflammation in subjects with UC is not only limited to the guts, but can extend to affect the skin, joints, eyes, and liver.

Ulcerative Colitis can be tough to live with and is characterized by flares and remission patterns (waxing and waning course). If left untreated, UC can lead to significant symptoms, disability, and even death. Therefore, public awareness, as well as early diagnosis and treatment are vital to avoid complications and disability.

What Causes Ulcerative Colitis?

While we do not know exactly what causes UC, the immune system in subjects with UC becomes abnormally activated (dysregulated) leading to excessive and unwanted inflammation. Genetics are believed to play a very important role. If you have a relative with UC, you are at a higher risk for UC. About 20 percent of people with the condition have a close family member who also has it.

Food, bacteria, environmental exposures and antigens, and other unknown factors are also believed to play a role in activating the immune system.

What Are the Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis?

Ulcerative colitis almost always affects the rectum. It can also affect any part of the colon and/or the whole colon. Common symptoms include:

Sometimes people with ulcerative colitis can have a fever or become anemic. You can develop ulcerative colitis at any age, but it’s usually diagnosed before age 30.

If you have these symptoms:

  • See your primary care doctor who will review your medical and family history.
  • If he/she suspects UC, you will need to see a gastroenterologist.
  • To diagnose UC, a colonoscopy with biopsies of inflamed colon is often needed.

How Is Ulcerative Colitis Treated?

Treatment focuses on regulating your immune system by suppressing its strong activity. Medications that suppress the immune system are the primary treatments options. Choice of medications varies depending on severity of symptoms, the severity of disease on inspection of your colon during colonoscopy, and your doctor’s experience.

Ulcerative colitis medication

These medications include:

  • Aminosalicylate medicine
  • Corticosteroids (should be used for short term only given the significant side effects)
  • Immunomodulators
  • TNF-inhibitors
  • Other biologic medications

While some dietary supplements including Probiotics and herbs such as turmeric are popular, limited data and studies are available to support a strong role in treating UC.

Some patients with UC can have severe inflammation, causing their colon to be very sensitive to food. Such typical foods include:

  • Diary products
  • Spicy food
  • High roughage
  • Vegetables
  • Foods rich in fructose

If you feel food is making your symptoms worse, keep a food diary and avoid foods that cause your symptoms.

RELATED: 5 Foods to Avoid if You Have Troubles with Your Digestive System

Do not forget that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen can worsen UC. Finally, do not forget that UC is a life-long disease that can often be complicated. Please consult with an experienced GI specialist.

Living With Ulcerative Colitis

It’s important to follow your treatment regimen and stay on top of your symptoms to help lessen flare-ups. Sometimes people with ulcerative colitis feel embarrassed or worried about going out with friends when having symptoms.

Be open with friends and family about the condition and how you feel. Support groups can also help you connect with other people who have the same struggles. The UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center has a comprehensive team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, psychiatrists, dietitians, social workers, nurses, and more, that are dedicated to treating all aspects of IBD.

To learn more, visit the Digestive Disorders Center website, call 1-866-4GASTRO (427876) or email DigestiveDisorders@upmc.edu.

digestive disorders

Digestive Disorders

The Digestive Disorders Center (DDC) is a convenient point of access to the full range of digestive health care services available at UPMC. Our team has expertise in treatments for inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as swallowing disorders, gastrointestinal cancer, and liver, pancreatic, and biliary diseases. Read More