Imagine not looking sick on the outside, but feeling constant pain from within. This is how patients with ulcerative colitis (UC)—an often misunderstood disease—can feel when experiencing a severe flare-up.
Ulcerative colitis is a rare chronic condition classified as an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Unlike other IBDs, the disease occurs in the large intestine and can affect parts or all of the rectum and colon. Though it is sometimes confused with irritable bowel syndrome, which affects just the bowels, UC is characterized by chronic inflammation of the inner intestine—and has no cure. Those living with the condition may find it difficult to take part in everyday activities during severe flare-ups.
Ulcerative Colitis Symptoms
The majority of people with UC experience mild symptoms throughout their lifetime. The disease can affect everyone differently, but the most common symptoms are:
- Bloody stool
- Constipation or feeling constipated
- Stomach pains
- Constant fatigue
- Sudden or extreme weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Though rare, some individuals experience symptoms elsewhere in the body, including:
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Red eyes/irritation
Ulcerative Colitis Types
The types of UC are classified by the location affected and severity of symptoms. They include:
Ulcerative proctitis. Inflammation is limited to the rectum and may be indicated by bleeding. All other symptoms are mild. This is the most common form of the disease among those diagnosed.
Proctosigmoiditis. The disease is confined to the rectum and lower part of the colon. Individuals with this form may experience the inability to pass a bowel movement, despite the constant feeling of needing to. Other symptoms include cramping and bloody stool.
Left-sided colitis. Inflammation affects the left (descending) side of the colon as well as the bottom part. Signs include excessive cramping, bloody stool, and unintended weight loss.
Pancolitis. Pancolitis is the inflammation of the entire colon, and symptoms are severe. Individuals will experience bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fatigue, pain, and significant weight loss.
Acute severe ulcerative colitis. Though incredibly rare, this form of ulcerative colitis causes extreme abdominal pain and interferes dramatically with daily life. Accompanying symptoms include an ongoing fever and the inability to eat.
Doctors have yet to identify a direct cause of UC. It most commonly appears in adults between the ages of 15-30, and it is extremely rare for children to develop the illness. Potential causes include:
Autoimmune response. Typically, when the immune system tries to fight off a virus, things go smoothly. But if they don’t, and immune response gone awry may cause the body to attack cells in the digestive system, resulting in an IBD.
Hereditary/genetic factors. Individuals with a family history of ulcerative colitis have a higher risk of developing it. Because of the disease’s rarity, many individuals who are diagnosed don’t have a prior family history.
Age. Most cases are diagnosed prior to age 30, but ulcerative colitis can still develop in individuals aged 60 and up.
Depending on the severity of the diagnosis and symptoms, a doctor may prescribe medication or even surgery. Medical options include:
Anti-inflammatory medications. Anti-inflammatory medications reduce intestinal inflammation
Immunosuppressants. A negative immune system response triggers inflammation. Immunomodifiers can suppress this response and ease some of the pain that accompanies it.
Antibiotics. Because of the fevers and illnesses that accompany the disease, antibiotics may be prescribed to restore health.
Pain relievers. For temporary relief from pain and inflammation, individuals can take over the counter pain relief medications as approved by a doctor.
Anti-diarrheal medications. These medications prevent diarrhea in those with more severe forms of ulcerative colitis.
Aside from medications, people affected by ulcerative colitis can adopt certain lifestyle changes to avoid flare-ups:
Avoid trigger foods. Some foods can cause diarrhea, inflammation, or abdominal pain for UC patients. Dairy products, raw or cruciferous vegetables (and other high-fiber foods), spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol can all trigger symptoms.
It’s best to limit these food groups and cook vegetables instead of consuming them raw so they’re easier to digest.
Drink enough water. Guzzling fluids—especially water—helps combat dehydration from fever and diarrhea. Individuals should avoid acidic or sugary beverages that cause irritation.
Explore holistic or homeopathic medicine. Though holistic remedies aren’t regulated by the FDA, many patients experience success adding homeopathic treatments into their routines to minimize UC symptoms. These remedies might include gut-balancing probiotics, herbal medicines, and cannabidiol (CBD) oil. CBD in particular is gaining traction for its anti-inflammatory properties. Scientists have studied the effects of CBD in aiding patients with Crohn’s disease (an IBD in the same classification as ulcerative colitis), and the results are promising.
Meditate and practice breathing exercises. Stress levels often contribute to more severe symptoms, and adopting a regular mindfulness practice involving breathwork or meditation can help patients strike a balance and avoid burnout.
With a wide variety of options available for patients, ulcerative colitis doesn’t have to be painful. If you have UC or think you may be suffering from the disease, consult a medical professional for advice and treatment options.