Diseases and Conditions
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Ulcerative colitis (UL-sur-uh-tiv koe-LIE-tis) is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) thatcauses long-lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in your digestive tract. Ulcerativecolitis affects the innermost lining of your large intestine (colon) and rectum. Symptomsusually develop over time, rather than suddenly.
Ulcerative colitis can be debilitating and sometimes can lead to life-threateningcomplications. While it has no known cure, treatment can greatly reduce signs andsymptoms of the disease and even bring about long-term remission.
Ulcerative colitis symptoms can vary, depending on the severity of inflammation andwhere it occurs. Therefore, doctors often classify ulcerative colitis according to itslocation.
You may have the following signs and symptoms, depending on which part of the colonis inflamed:
Diarrhea, often with blood or pus
Abdominal pain and cramping
Rectal bleeding — passing small amount of blood with stool
Urgency to defecate
Inability to defecate despite urgency
In children, failure to grow
Most people with ulcerative colitis have mild to moderate symptoms. The course ofulcerative colitis may vary, with some people having long periods of remission.
Ulcerative colitis is classified according to how much of your colon is affected. Thecondition can be mild and limited to the rectum (ulcerative proctitis). Or it can affectadditional parts of your colon, generally with more severe symptoms. People whodevelop ulcerative colitis at a younger age are more likely to have severe symptoms.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you experience a persistent change in your bowel habits or if you havesigns and symptoms such as:
Blood in your stool
Ongoing diarrhea that doesn't respond to over-the-counter medications
Diarrhea that awakens you from sleep
An unexplained fever lasting more than a day or two
Although ulcerative colitis usually isn't fatal, it's a serious disease that, in some cases,may cause life-threatening complications.
The exact cause of ulcerative colitis remains unknown. Previously, diet and stress weresuspected, but now doctors know that these factors may aggravate but don't causeulcerative colitis.
One possible cause is an immune system malfunction. When your immune system triesto fight off an invading virus or bacterium, an abnormal immune response causes theimmune system to attack the cells in the digestive tract, too.
Heredity also seems to play a role in that ulcerative colitis is more common in peoplewho have family members with the disease. However, most people with ulcerative colitisdon't have this family history.
Ulcerative colitis affects about the same number of women and men. Risk factors mayinclude:
Age. Ulcerative colitis usually begins before the age of 30. But, it can occur at any
age, and some people may not develop the disease until after age 60.
Race or ethnicity. Although whites have the highest risk of the disease, it can occur
in any race. If you're of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, your risk is even higher.
Family history. You're at higher risk if you have a close relative, such as a parent,
sibling or child, with the disease.
Isotretinoin use. Isotretinoin (Amnesteem, Claravis, Sotret; formerly Accutane) is a
medication sometimes used to treat scarring cystic acne or acne. Some studies
suggest it is a risk factor for IBD, but a clear association between ulcerative colitis and
isotretinoin has not been established.
Possible complications of ulcerative colitis include:
A hole in the colon (perforated colon)
Liver disease (rare)
Bone loss (osteoporosis)
Inflammation of your skin, joints and eyes, and sores in the lining of your mouth
An increased risk of colon cancer
A rapidly swelling colon (toxic megacolon)
Increased risk of blood clots in veins and arteries
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis may first prompt you to visit your family doctor or generalpractitioner. Your doctor may recommend you see a specialist who treats digestivediseases (gastroenterologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and there's often a lot of information to discuss, it's agood idea to be well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and whatto expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the
appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as
restrict your diet.
Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem
unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life
Make a list of al medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking. Be sure
to let your doctor know if you're taking any herbal preparations, as well.
Ask a family member or friend to come with you. Sometimes it can be difficult to
remember all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who
accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time canhelp you make the most of your time. List your questions from most important to leastimportant in case time runs out. For ulcerative colitis, some basic questions to ask yourdoctor include:
What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
Are there other possible causes for my symptoms?
What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
What types of side effects can I expect from treatment?
Are there any prescription or over-the-counter medications I need to avoid?
What sort of follow-up care do I need? How often do I need a colonoscopy?
Are there any alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
Are there certain foods I can't eat anymore?
Will I be able to keep working?
Can I have children?
Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing me?
Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? Whatwebsites do you recommend?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them mayreserve time to go over points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
How severe are your symptoms?
Do you have abdominal pain?
Have you had diarrhea? How often?
Have you recently lost any weight unintentionally?
Does anything seem to improve your symptoms?
What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
Have you ever experienced liver problems, hepatitis or jaundice?
Have you had any problems with your joints, eyes, skin rashes or sores, or had soresin your mouth?
Do you awaken from sleep during the night because of diarrhea?
Have you recently traveled? If so, where?
Is anyone else in your home sick with diarrhea?
Have you taken antibiotics recently?
Do you regularly take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil,Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve, Anaprox)?
Your doctor will likely diagnose ulcerative colitis after ruling out other possible causes foryour signs and symptoms. To help confirm a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, you may haveone or more of the following tests and procedures:
Blood tests. Your doctor may suggest blood tests to check for anemia — a condition
in which there aren't enough red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues
— or to check for signs of infection.
Stool sample. White blood cells in your stool can indicate ulcerative colitis. A stool
sample can also help rule out other disorders, such as infections caused by bacteria,
viruses and parasites.
Colonoscopy. This exam allows your doctor to view your entire colon using a thin,
flexible, lighted tube with an attached camera. During the procedure, your doctor can
also take small samples of tissue (biopsy) for laboratory analysis. Sometimes a tissue
sample can help confirm a diagnosis.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy. Your doctor uses a slender, flexible, lighted tube to
examine the sigmoid, the last portion of your colon. If your colon is severely inflamed,
your doctor may perform this test instead of a full colonoscopy.
X-ray. If you have severe symptoms, your doctor may use a standard X-ray of your
abdominal area to rule out serious complications, such as a perforated colon.
CT scan. A CT scan of your abdomen or pelvis may be performed if your doctor
suspects a complication from ulcerative colitis or inflammation of the small intestine. A
CT scan may also reveal how much of the colon is inflamed.
Tests at Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic doctors use the most advanced techniques available to diagnose ulcerativecolitis, some of them developed at Mayo.
Besides the usual tests, the following tests are available at Mayo Clinic:
Computed tomography (CT) enterography and magnetic resonance (MR)
enterography. Your doctor may recommend one of these noninvasive tests, which
are more sensitive for finding inflammation in the bowel than are conventional
imaging tests. MR enterography is a radiation-free alternative.
Chromoendoscopy. Mayo Clinic doctors use this technology to screen for colorectal
cancer, the most serious risk associated with ulcerative colitis. Chromoendoscopy
uses a spray dye to highlight abnormal tissue changes.
Ulcerative colitis treatment usually involves either drug therapy or surgery.
Several categories of drugs may be effective in treating ulcerative colitis. The type youtake will depend on the severity of your condition. The drugs that work well for somepeople may not work for others, so it may take time to find a medication that helps you. Inaddition, because some drugs have serious side effects, you'll need to weigh the benefitsand risks of any treatment.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first step in the treatment of inflammatory boweldisease. They include:
Aminosalicylates. Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine) can be effective in reducing symptoms
of ulcerative colitis, but it has a number of side effects, including digestive distress
and headache. Certain 5-aminosalicylates, including mesalamine (Asacol, Lialda,
Rowasa, Canasa, others), balsalazide (Colazal) and olsalazine (Dipentum) are
available in both oral and enema or suppository forms. Which form you take depends
on the area of your colon that's affected. Rarely, these medications have been
associated with kidney and pancreas problems.
Corticosteroids. These drugs, which include prednisone and hydrocortisone, are
generally reserved for moderate to severe ulcerative colitis that doesn't respond to
other treatments. They are given orally, intravenously, or by enema or suppository,
depending on the location affected.
Corticosteroids have numerous side effects, including a puffy face, excessive facialhair, night sweats, insomnia and hyperactivity. More-serious side effects include highblood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, bone fractures, cataracts, glaucoma andincreased chance of infection. They are not usually given long term.
Immune system suppressors
These drugs also reduce inflammation, but they do so by suppressing the immunesystem response that starts the process of inflammation. For some people, acombination of these drugs works better than one drug alone. Corticosteroids also maybe used with an immune system suppressor — the corticosteroids can induce remission,while the immune system suppressors can help maintain it.
Immunosuppressant drugs include:
Azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran) and mercaptopurine (Purinethol, Purixam). These
are the most widely used immunosuppressants for treatment of inflammatory bowel
disease. Taking them requires that you follow up closely with your doctor and have
your blood checked regularly to look for side effects, including effects on the liver and
pancreas. Additional side effects include lowered resistance to infection and a small
chance of developing cancers such as lymphoma and skin cancers.
Cyclosporine (Gengraf, Neoral, Sandimmune). This drug is normally reserved for
people who haven't responded well to other medications. Cyclosporine has the
potential for serious side effects, such as kidney and liver damage, seizures, and fatal
infections, and is not for long-term use. There's also a small risk of cancer, so let your
doctor know if you've previously had cancer.
Infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira) and golimumab (Simponi). These
drugs, called tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha inhibitors, or "biologics," work by
neutralizing a protein produced by your immune system. They are for people with
moderate to severe ulcerative colitis who don't respond to or can't tolerate other
treatments. People with certain conditions can't take TNF-alpha inhibitors.
Tuberculosis and other serious infections have been associated with the use of
immunosuppressant drugs. These drugs also are associated with a small risk of
developing certain cancers such as lymphoma and skin cancers.
Vedolizumab (Entyvio). This medication was recently approved for treatment of
ulcerative colitis for people who don't respond to or can't tolerate biologics and other
treatments. It works by blocking inflammatory cells from getting to the site of infection.
It is also associated with a small risk of infection and cancer.
You may need additional medications to manage specific symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
Always talk with your doctor before using over-the-counter medications. He or she mayrecommend one or more of the following.
Antibiotics. People with ulcerative colitis who run fevers will likely take antibiotics to
help prevent or control infection.
Anti-diarrheal medications. For severe diarrhea, loperamide (Imodium) may be
effective. Use anti-diarrheal medications with great caution, however, because they
may increase the risk of toxic megacolon.
Pain relievers. For mild pain, your doctor may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol,
others) — but not ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve,
Anaprox), and diclofenac sodium (Voltaren, Solaraze), which can worsen symptoms
and increase the severity of disease.
Iron supplements. If you have chronic intestinal bleeding, you may develop iron
deficiency anemia and be given iron supplements.
Surgery can often eliminate ulcerative colitis. But that usually means removing yourentire colon and rectum (proctocolectomy). In most cases, this involves a procedurecalled ileoanal anastomosis that eliminates the need to wear a bag to collect stool. Yoursurgeon constructs a pouch from the end of your small intestine. The pouch is thenattached directly to your anus, allowing you to expel waste relatively normally.
In some cases a pouch is not possible. Instead, surgeons create a permanent opening inyour abdomen (ileal stoma) through which stool is passed for collection in an attachedbag.
Cancer surveil ance
You will need more-frequent screening for colon cancer because of your increased risk.
The recommended schedule will depend on the location of your disease and how longyou have had it.
If your disease involves more than your rectum, you will require surveillance colonoscopyevery one to two years. You will need a surveillance colonoscopy beginning as soon aseight years after diagnosis if the majority of your colon is involved, or 10 years if only theleft side of your colon is involved.
If in addition to ulcerative colitis you have a rare condition called primary sclerosingcholangitis, you will need to begin surveillance colonoscopy every one to two years afteryou have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
Sometimes you may feel helpless when facing ulcerative colitis. But changes in your dietand lifestyle may help control your symptoms and lengthen the time between flare-ups.
There's no firm evidence that what you eat actually causes inflammatory bowel disease.
But certain foods and beverages can aggravate your signs and symptoms, especiallyduring a flare-up.
It can be helpful to keep a food diary to keep track of what you're eating, as well as howyou feel. If you discover some foods are causing your symptoms to flare, you can tryeliminating them. Here are some suggestions that may help:
Foods to limit or avoid
Limit dairy products. Many people with inflammatory bowel disease find that
problems such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and gas improve by limiting or eliminating
dairy products. You may be lactose intolerant — that is, your body can't digest the
milk sugar (lactose) in dairy foods. Using an enzyme product such as Lactaid may
help as well.
Try low-fat foods. If you have Crohn's disease of the small intestine, you may not be
able to digest or absorb fat normally. Instead, fat passes through your intestine,
making your diarrhea worse. Try avoiding butter, margarine, cream sauces and fried
Limit fiber, if it's a problem food. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, high-fiber
foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, may make your
symptoms worse. If raw fruits and vegetables bother you, try steaming, baking or
stewing them. In general, you may have more problems with foods in the cabbage
family, such as broccoli and cauliflower, and nuts, seeds, corn and popcorn. You may
be told to limit fiber or go on a low-residue diet if you have a narrowing of your bowel
Avoid other problem foods. Spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine may make your signs
and symptoms worse.
Other dietary measures
Eat small meals. You may find you feel better eating five or six small meals a day
rather than two or three larger ones.
Drink plenty of liquids. Try to drink plenty of fluids daily. Water is best. Alcohol and
beverages that contain caffeine stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhea
worse, while carbonated drinks frequently produce gas.
Consider multivitamins. Because Crohn's disease can interfere with your ability to
absorb nutrients and because your diet may be limited, multivitamin and mineral
supplements are often helpful. Check with your doctor before taking any vitamins or
Talk to a dietitian. If you begin to lose weight or your diet has become very limited,
talk to a registered dietitian.
Although stress doesn't cause inflammatory bowel disease, it can make your signs andsymptoms worse and may trigger flare-ups.
To help control stress, try:
Exercise. Even mild exercise can help reduce stress, relieve depression and
normalize bowel function. Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan that's right for
Biofeedback. This stress-reduction technique helps you reduce muscle tension and
slow your heart rate with the help of a feedback machine. The goal is to help you
enter a relaxed state so that you can cope more easily with stress.
Regular relaxation and breathing exercises. An effective way to cope with stress is
to perform relaxation and breathing exercises. You can take classes in yoga and
meditation or practice at home using books, CDs or DVDs.
Many people with digestive disorders have used some form of complementary andalternative (CAM) therapy. However, there are few well-designed studies of their safetyand effectiveness.
Some commonly used therapies include:
Herbal and nutritional supplements. The majority of alternative therapies aren't
regulated by the FDA. Manufacturers can claim that their therapies are safe and
effective but don't need to prove it. What's more, even natural herbs and supplements
can have side effects and cause dangerous interactions. Tell your doctor if you
decide to try any herbal supplement.
Probiotics. Researchers suspect that adding more of the beneficial bacteria
(probiotics) that are normally found in the digestive tract might help combat the
disease. Although research is limited, there is some evidence that adding probiotics
along with other medications may be helpful, but this has not been proved.
Fish oil. Fish oil acts as an anti-inflammatory, and there is some evidence that
adding fish oil to aminosalicylates may be helpful, but this has not been proved. Fish
oil can cause diarrhea.
Aloe vera. Aloe vera gel may have an anti-inflammatory effect for people with
ulcerative colitis, but it also can cause diarrhea.
Acupuncture. Only one clinical trial has been conducted regarding its benefit. The
procedure involves the insertion of fine needles into the skin, which may stimulate the
release of the body's natural painkillers.
Turmeric. Curcumin, a compound found in the spice turmeric, has been combined
with standard ulcerative colitis therapies in clinical trials. There is some evidence of
benefit, but more research is needed.
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Mayo Clinic gastroenterologists discuss inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerativecolitis, on YouTube.
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