What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory disease of the large intestine (colon). It is one of two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The other main type is Crohn’s disease. There are differences between the two conditions although the symptoms may be similar. Ulcerative colitis affects mainly the colon, whereas Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive system from the mouth to the anus. Ulcerative colitis is most often diagnosed in the mid-30’s but the disease can occur at any age. Although it is found in all countries and races, it is more common among white people of European origin and among people of Jewish heritage. Approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. are affected by ulcerative colitis. It affects men and women equally and the risk is greater in people who have close relatives affected by the condition.
What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?
In ulcerative colitis the lining of the intestine becomes ulcerated and inflamed. Different parts of the large intestine can be affected. The disease may occur only in the rectum (proctitis), in the rectum and the left side of the colon (proctosigmoiditis), or in the entire colon (universal colitis). The symptoms of ulcerative colitis vary in severity in different people. Symptoms are usually more severe when more of the colon is affected.
In proctitis, intermittent rectal bleeding may occur with no other symptoms. In universal colitis, cramp-like abdominal (stomach) pain, weight loss, diarrhea, loss of appetite (anorexia) and rectal bleeding may all occur frequently. If the bleeding is severe, it may cause anemia, requiring blood transfusions. There is usually abdominal pain before a bowel movement (which is often diarrhea). Diarrhea may be frequent and mixed with blood, pus and mucus. If the symptoms become severe, some people may require hospital treatment until the attack has settled.
Occasionally, people with ulcerative colitis also suffer from swollen joints, mouth ulcers, inflamed eyes or rashes on the body. The symptoms may flare up or improve at different times. Some people may have a complete remission of symptoms for periods of time. People with long-standing ulcerative colitis (more than eight years) can have an increased risk of colon cancer. Yearly tests are usually recommended after this time to detect any early changes which may preclude cancer.