Ulcerative colitis is a disease
that causes inflammation and sores, called ulcers, in the top layers
of the lining of the large intestine, affecting 1 to 1.5 million
Americans each year. The inflammation usually occurs in the rectum
and lower part of the colon, but it may affect the entire organ.
Ulcerative colitis - which may also be called colitis, ileitis,
or proctitis - rarely affects the small intestine.
The inflammation caused by ulcerative colitis makes the colon empty
frequently, causing diarrhea. Ulcers form in places where the inflammation
has killed colon lining cells; the ulcers bleed and produce pus
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the general
name for diseases that cause inflammation in the intestines. Ulcerative
colitis can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar
to other intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and
to another type of IBD called Crohn's disease.
Men and women are affected equally by ulcerative colitis. It most
commonly begins during adolescence and early adulthood, but it also
can begin during childhood and later in life.
What causes ulcerative colitis?
There are many theories about what causes ulcerative colitis, but
none have been proven. The most popular theory is that the body's
immune system reacts to a virus or a bacterium by causing ongoing
inflammation in the intestinal wall. The immune system is composed
of immune cells and the proteins that these cells produce. These
cells and proteins serve to defend the body against harmful bacteria,
viruses, fungi, and other foreign invaders. Activation of the immune
system causes inflammation within the tissues where the activation
Normally, the immune system is
activated only when the body is exposed to harmful invaders. In
patients with ulcerative colitis, however, the immune system is
abnormally and chronically activated in the absence of any known
invader. The continued abnormal activation of the immune systems
causes chronic inflammation and ulceration. The susceptibility to
abnormal activation of the immune system is genetically inherited.
What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?
The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are abdominal pain
and bloody diarrhea, fever and nausea. Patients also may experience
fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, rectal bleeding and loss
of body fluids and nutrients. The severity of the symptoms often
depends on where the ulcers are located, and whether the entire
colon is affected.
Ulcerative colitis may also cause problems such as arthritis, inflammation
of the eye, liver disease (fatty liver, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and
primary sclerosing cholangitis), osteoporosis, skin rashes, anemia
and kidney stones.
Both medications and surgery have been used to treat ulcerative
colitis. Surgery is reserved for those with severe inflammation
and life-threatening complications.