Ulcerative colitis is long-lasting disease that inflames the lining of the large intestine (the colon) and rectum. Ulcerative colitis usually affects people 15 to 30 years old. People with ulcerative colitis have tiny ulcers and small abscesses in their colon and rectum that flare up periodically and cause bloody stools and diarrhea.
Ulcerative colitis is characterized by alternating periods of flare-ups and remission, when the symptoms of the disease disappear. The periods of remission can last from weeks to years.
Whenever Serena Ehrlich goes someplace new, she scouts out the location of the bathroom. That's because Ehrlich, 38, a Los Angeles-based salesperson for a commercial wire service, has ulcerative colitis. She developed the disease 12 years ago and has been in remission for the past three. Still, the old habit lingers. "Everyone who has ulcerative colitis will tell you that when you walk into a bookstore, a shop, or a restaurant, that's the one thing you want to know first. It's our rule of thumb."
Inflammation usually begins in the rectum and then spreads to other segments of the colon. How much of the colon is affected varies from person to person. If it is limited to the rectum, the disease may be called ulcerative proctitis. Ulcerative colitis, unlike Crohn's disease, does not affect the esophagus, stomach, or small intestine.
The cause of ulcerative colitis remains unknown, but some researchers believe that an abnormal response of the immune system is involved in the development of the disease. A viral or bacterial infection of the colon may trigger the uncontrolled inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis.
Who Gets Ulcerative Colitis?
Ulcerative colitis can be inherited. Up to 20% of people with inflammatory bowel disease have a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister) with the disease.
In addition, the disease is most common in the U.S. and northern Europe and in people of Jewish descent.
How Is Ulcerative Colitis Diagnosed?
A variety of diagnostic procedures and lab tests are used to distinguish ulcerative colitis from other conditions. First, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a complete physical exam. One or more of the following tests may be ordered: