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Ulcerative Colitis: Talk to Your Doctor

Understanding ulcerative colitis symptoms and treatment can help you live easier with the condition.

Do I need to be concerned about nutritional deficiencies in my diet because of ulcerative colitis?

Severe nutritional deficiencies are typically associated with Crohn's disease, which affects the small intestine, where most nutrients are absorbed. Because ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine, it can cause severe and sometimes bloody diarrhea, putting patients at risk for iron deficiency and anemia.

You can measure your iron level with a simple blood test.

Ulcerative colitis can also deplete stores of folate. That's especially dangerous for women of child-bearing age, since folate deficiency is linked to birth defects. Fluid loss from diarrhea can also cause electrolyte imbalances.

Are there other risks to ulcerative colitis?

Severe infections can occur in the large intestine, but they are uncommon. Ulcerative colitis is also associated with a higher risk of colon cancer. For that reason, doctors recommend frequent colonoscopy exams. Your doctor may discuss other risks with you.

What else can I do to improve my health with ulcerative colitis?

If you smoke, set a goal to stop. Studies show that smoking exacerbates the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, especially Crohn's. Smoking also adds to cancer risk.

Finding ways to alleviate stress may also help you control your symptoms. Stress doesn't cause inflammatory bowel disease, but it can make your symptoms feel worse and may trigger flare-ups. Many patients find that moderate exercise, relaxation techniques, or soaking in a warmth bath are helpful.

Can medications help ulcerative colitis?

Doctors have a growing list of drugs to treat ulcerative colitis. Patients are most often prescribed drugs known as aminosalicylates (5-ASA preparations), which work to reduce inflammation in the bowel wall and work to prevent flare-ups. They work well for mild to moderate disease of the colon. Brand names include Pentasa, Asacol, Colasal, and Azulfidine.

Corticosteroids are prescribed to bring the disease into remission. For moderate to severe inflammatory bowel disease these medications are given intravenously in the hospital. 

Drugs called biologics block chemicals involved in inflammation and are also available. Biologics include Humira, Cimzia, Entyvio, Remicade, and Simponi. It is often recommended as an alternative to corticosteroids, which can have serious long-term adverse effects. This drug helps bring the disease under control and maintains the disease in remission.

Your doctor will discuss the best medication given your symptoms and overall health.

What is the treatment for an ulcerative colitis flare-up once it begins?

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as 5-ASAs are used to stop mild flares. To treat more severe flares, doctors usually turn to more potent medications, such as corticosteroids.

What tests are used to monitor ulcerative colitis?

Doctors have a wide variety of tests that are useful in diagnosing and monitoring inflammatory bowel diseases. A variety of imaging tests, including colonoscopies, are performed to assess the bowels. Biopsies are sometimes taken to look at cells in the lining of the intestines.  Blood tests are used to detect nutritional deficiencies and anemia, a common side effect of ulcerative colitis. Stool specimens can detect infections in the intestines.

Next Article:

What do you rely on most to manage ulcerative colitis?