5 fast facts about ulcerative colitis

February 10, 2016 Karlee J. Ausk, MD

In January, the world mourned the loss of Glenn Frey, founding member of the Eagles. He reportedly battled two autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, for years before his death. Questions since have swirled in the media about these diseases. Patients express concern to me about the effect that ulcerative colitis may have on their life. Here are five fast facts to know about ulcerative colitis.

1) Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune condition

Your immune system is a collection of systems and processes in your body that protect you from disease. The immune system is trained to recognize many types of pathogens and fight them off to keep you healthy.

An autoimmune condition results when the immune system malfunctions and directs its energy against your own tissue. In ulcerative colitis, this immune system attack is against the superficial lining of the colon. The result is inflammation or ulceration of the colon.

2) The severity of ulcerative colitis varies widely

The most common signs and symptoms of ulcerative colitis include:

  • Diarrhea, often with bleeding
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

These symptoms are not typically short-lived, and they can persist for weeks or months if not treated.

A lower endoscopy (colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy) is used to take biopsies of the colon and diagnose ulcerative colitis. The severity of ulcerative colitis can range from mild bleeding as the main symptom to diarrhea and malnutrition so serious that a patient must be hospitalized.

3) Ulcerative colitis requires a long-term treatment plan

Many autoimmune conditions, including ulcerative colitis, are lifelong and may require long-term medications to keep the disease under control. Medications vary based on the severity of the disease in each person. However, because of the dysfunctional immune system, many of the medications are designed to suppress parts of the immune function.

Surgery is also a treatment for ulcerative colitis and usually involves removing the entire colon. This is considered a “cure” for ulcerative colitis because no colon tissue is left for the immune system to attack.

4) There is not an ulcerative colitis diet

There is no diet shown to cause ulcerative colitis, or treat or cure this disease. This is an area of active research, and a diet may be found during our lifetime.

Many people will have recommendations for diets that have helped them, but one diet does not fit all. If you find that a diet eases your symptoms, I encourage you to follow it—as long as it is not restricting your caloric intake and leading to nutritional deficiencies.

This is a good resource about diet and ulcerative colitis from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

5) Ulcerative colitis increases the risk of colon cancer

After eight years of ulcerative colitis, the risk of colon cancer increases. Studies estimate that the risk is two to five times higher than for the general population. That said, MOST patients with ulcerative colitis will NOT get colon cancer.

If you have had ulcerative colitis for longer than eight years, then more frequent colonoscopies are recommended to monitor for and remove any pre-cancer changes to prevent them from developing into cancer.

In general, I would also recommend these simple steps to decrease your risk of colon cancer:

  • Exercise
  • Maintain a normal weight
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit consumption of processed or red meats

If you have ulcerative colitis, I encourage you to educate yourself about the disease and be your own advocate. Knowledge is power! The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a great resource for information about ulcerative colitis. It has many carefully created patient handouts, and educational conferences in our area.

If you think you may have ulcerative colitis, call Swedish Gastroenterology at 206-215-4250 to find out how to make an appointment to see a specialist, or visit us on the Web.

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