Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of chronic disorders that cause inflammation or ulceration in the small and large intestines. Most often IBD is classified as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease but may be referred to as colitis, enteritis, ileitis, and proctitis.

Ulcerative colitis causes ulceration and inflammation of the inner lining of the colon and rectum, while Crohn's disease is an inflammation that extends into the deeper layer of the intestinal wall. Crohn's disease also may affect other parts of the digestive tract, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.

Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease cause similar symptoms that often resemble other conditions, such and irritable bowel syndrome (spastic colitis). The correct diagnosis may take some time.

In ulcerative colitis, the inner lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum becomes inflamed. The inflammation usually begins in the rectum and lower (sigmoid) intestine and spreads upward to the entire colon. Ulcerative colitis rarely affects the small intestine except for the lower section, the ileum. The inflammation causes the colon to empty frequently, resulting in diarrhea. As cells on the surface of the lining of the colon die and slough off, ulcers (tiny open sores) form, causing pus, mucus, and bleeding.

An estimated 250,000 Americans have ulcerative colitis. It occurs most often in young people ages 15 to 40, although children and older people sometimes develop the disease, too. Ulcerative colitis affects males and females equally and appears to run in some families.

What Are The Symptoms Of Ulcerative Colitis?

The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Patients also may suffer fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, rectal bleeding, and loss of body fluids and nutrients. Severe bleeding can lead to anemia. Sometimes patients also have skin lesions, joint pain, inflammation of the eyes, or liver disorders. No one knows for sure why problems outside the bowel are linked with colitis. Scientists think these complications may occur when the immune system triggers inflammation in other parts of the body. These disorders are usually mild and go away when the colitis is treated.

What Causes Ulcerative Colitis?

The cause of ulcerative colitis is not known, and currently there is no cure, except through surgical removal of the colon. Many theories about what causes ulcerative colitis exist, but none has been proven. The current leading theory suggests that some agent, possibly a virus or an atypical bacterium, interacts with the body's immune system to trigger an inflammatory reaction in the intestinal wall.

Although much scientific evidence shows that people with ulcerative colitis have abnormalities of the immune system, doctors do not know whether these abnormalities are a cause or result of the disease. Doctors believe, however, that there is little proof that ulcerative colitis is caused by emotional distress or sensitivity to certain foods or food products or is the result of an unhappy childhood.

How Is Ulcerative Colitis Diagnosed?

If you have symptoms that suggest ulcerative colitis, the doctor will look inside your rectum and colon through a flexible tube (endoscope) inserted through the anus. During the exam, the doctor may take a sample of tissue (biopsy) from the lining of the colon to view under the microscope. You also may receive a barium enema x-ray of the colon to determine the nature and extent of the disease. This procedure involves putting a chalky solution (barium) into the colon. The barium shows up white on x-ray film, revealing growths and other abnormalities in the colon.

The doctor will give you a thorough physical exam, including blood tests to see if you are anemic (as a result of blood loss), or if your white blood cell count is elevated (a sign of inflammation). Examination of a stool sample can tell the doctor if an infection, such as by amoebae or bacteria, is causing the symptoms.

If you have ulcerative colitis, you may need medical care for some time. Your doctor also will want to see you regularly to check on the condition.

How Serious Is The Disease?

About half of patients have only mild symptoms. Others suffer frequent fever, bloody diarrhea, nausea, and severe abdominal cramps. Only in rare cases, when complications occur, is the disease fatal. There may be remissions--periods when the symptoms go away--that last for months or even years. However, most patients' symptoms eventually return. This changing pattern of the disease can make it hard for the doctor to tell when treatment has helped.


Printable View