Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lower part of the digestive tract, namely the large intestine and rectum. The disease is characterized by ulcers. These sores develop in the lining of the digestive tract and are difficult to heal.
Ulcerative colitis causes swelling in the intestine, preventing ingested water from being properly absorbed by the body. Consequently, the water remains trapped in the intestine. The main symptoms of the disease are stomach cramps and urgent, persistent diarrhea. The ulcers may also cause bloody stool.
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease with alternating periods of remission (no symptoms) and flare-ups. The duration of each period can vary. Although the disease can occur at any age, it is usually diagnosed in young children and adults aged 40 to 50. Over time, ulcerative colitis can lead to many long-term complications, such as colon cancer and anemia, and therefore requires regular medical follow-ups.
Causes and triggers
The causes of ulcerative colitis are not yet well understood. The most common hypothesis is that a combination of factors can disrupt some people's immune system response and trigger the disease. When this happens, the cells responsible for protecting the body do not just fight unwanted microbes, but they also begin to attack healthy parts of the body—in this case, the intestine.
In addition, people with a family history of ulcerative colitis are at greater risk of developing the disease.
The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and prevent complications.
Many people with ulcerative colitis need medication to manage their disease, as it can help calm the inflammation that triggers symptoms. Finding the right combination of medications can take time; certain drugs are effective for some people, but not others.
Although no specific diet is effective in relieving the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, some people find that certain foods make their symptoms worse (e.g., dairy products, gluten, high-fibre foods). It's best to avoid these problem foods and speak with a nutritionist to ensure that you continue to get all the nutrients your body needs.
Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits can also help limit symptoms and complications. Examples include:
- Staying hydrated (drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water per day)
- Getting enough sleep and rest
- Reducing your stress levels (e.g., through meditation, breathing exercises, psychotherapy)
- Maintaining good oral hygiene
- Getting all the recommended vaccines by age
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting smoking
Some medications can make symptoms worse. Before taking any drug, ask your pharmacist if it's right for you.
When should I see a health care professional?
Speak with your health care provider if you experience any of the following:
- Diarrhea that's more severe than usual
- Severe cramps or pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Inability to pass stool or gas
- Significant dehydration (e.g., constant thirst, no urine, dark urine, dizziness)
- Rapid weight loss