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What is ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in which the inner lining of the large intestine (colon or bowel) and rectum become inflamed. 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 diarrhea, or frequent emptying of the colon. As cells on the surface of the lining of the colon die and slough off, ulcers (open sores) form and may cause the discharge of pus and mucus, in addition to bleeding.

Although children and older people sometimes develop ulcerative colitis, it most often starts between the ages of 15 and 30. It affects males and females equally and appears to run in some families.

Our approach

Beyond the standard treatments, clinical experts at Northwell Health are actively enrolling patients into exclusive international clinical trials. The team of gastroenterologists provide patients with access to cutting-edge investigational therapies that may also be helpful when standards have failed. This unique care requires a significant amount of coordination between physicians of multiple specialties including gastroenterology, radiation, endocrinology and infectious disease. Because Northwell is an integrated system, patients quickly receive access to this coordinated multidisciplinary care. 

Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Loss of body fluids and nutrients
  • Anemia caused by severe bleeding

Sometimes, symptoms may also include:

  • Skin lesions
  • Joint pain
  • Inflammation of the eyes
  • Liver disorders
  • Osteoporosis
  • Rashes
  • Kidney stones

Ulcerative colitis requires long-term medical care. There may be remissions (periods when the symptoms go away) that last for months or even years. However, symptoms eventually return.

How is it diagnosed?

A thorough physical examination, including blood tests to determine whether an anemic condition exists, or if the white blood cell count is elevated (a sign of inflammation), is part of the diagnostic process. In addition, diagnostic procedures for ulcerative colitis may include the following:

  • Stool culture - Checks for the presence of abnormal bacteria in the digestive tract that may cause diarrhea and other problems. A small sample of stool is collected and sent to a laboratory by your doctor's office. In two or three days, the test will show whether abnormal bacteria, bleeding, or infection are present.
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (also called EGD or upper endoscopy) - A procedure that allows the doctor to examine the inside of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (the first part of the small intestine where the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients begins). A thin, flexible, lighted tube called an endoscope is guided into the mouth and throat, then into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The endoscope allows the doctor to view the inside of this area of the body, as well as to insert instruments through a scope for the removal of a sample of tissue for biopsy (if necessary).
  • Colonoscopy - Colonoscopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to view the entire length of the large intestine, and can often help identify abnormal growths, inflamed tissue, ulcers, and bleeding. It involves inserting a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube, in through the rectum up into the colon. The colonoscope allows the doctor to see the lining of the colon, remove tissue for further examination, and possibly treat some problems that are discovered.
  • Biopsy - A procedure performed to remove tissue or cells from the lining of the colon for examination under a microscope.
  • Lower GI (gastrointestinal) series (also called barium enema) - A procedure that examines the rectum, the large intestine, and the lower part of the small intestine. A fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an X-ray) is given into the rectum as an enema. An X-ray of the abdomen shows strictures (narrowed areas), obstructions (blockages), and other problems.

Types of treatment

While there is no special diet for ulcerative colitis, patients may be able to control mild symptoms simply by avoiding foods that seem to upset their intestines. When treatment is necessary, it must be tailored for each case, as what may help one patient may not help another. Treatment may include the following.

Drug therapy (aminosalicylates, corticosteroids, or immunomodulators)

Abdominal cramps and diarrhea may be helped by medications to reduce inflammation in the colon. Abdominal cramps and diarrhea may be helped by medications to reduce inflammation in the colon. More serious cases may require steroid medications, antibiotics, or medications that affect the body's immune system.

Hospitalization

Patients with ulcerative colitis occasionally have symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization to correct malnutrition and to stop diarrhea and loss of blood, fluids and mineral salts. The patient may need a special diet, intravenous (IV) feedings, medications, or, sometimes, surgery.

Surgery

Most people with ulcerative colitis do not need surgery. However, about 25 to 40 percent of ulcerative colitis patients eventually require surgery for removal of the colon because of massive bleeding, chronic debilitating illness, perforation of the colon or risk of cancer. (If only the rectum and lower colon are involved, the risk of cancer is not higher than normal. However, the risk of colon cancer is greater than normal in patients with widespread ulcerative colitis.) Sometimes, removing the colon is suggested when medical treatment fails, or the side effects of steroids or other drugs threaten the patient's health. There are several surgical options, including the following:

  • Proctocolectomy with end ileostomy. This is the most common surgery and involves proctocolectomy (removal of the entire diseased colon and rectum) with ileostomy (creation of a small opening in the abdominal wall where the tip of the lower small intestine, the ileum, is brought to the skin's surface to allow drainage of waste).
  • Ileal Pouch Anal Anastomosis (IPAA) or Ileo-anal reservoir surgery. An alternative to a permanent ileostomy, this procedure is a major breakthrough in treating UC, and restoring natural anatomy after the removal of the severely diseased colon and rectum. It is usually completed in two or three surgeries. People who have this surgery are generally able to control their bowel movements well.
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