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Ulcerative Colitis - Topic Overview


Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are the most common types of inflammatory bowel disease. Ulcerative colitis affects only the colon and rectum. Crohn's can affect any part of the digestive tract. To learn more about Crohn's disease, see the topic Crohn's Disease.

Ulcerative colitis is a disease that causes inflammation and sores (ulcers) in the lining of the large intestine (colon camera.gif). It usually affects the lower section (sigmoid colon) and the rectum. But it can affect the entire colon. In general, the more of the colon that's affected, the worse the symptoms will be.

The disease can affect people of any age. But most people who have it are diagnosed before the age of 30.

Experts aren't sure what causes it. They think it might be caused by the immune system overreacting to normal bacteria in the digestive tract. Or other kinds of bacteria and viruses may cause it.

You are more likely to get ulcerative colitis if other people in your family have it.

The main symptoms are:

Some people also may have a fever, may not feel hungry, and may lose weight. In severe cases, people may have diarrhea 10 to 20 times a day.

The disease can also cause other problems, such as joint pain, eye problems, or liver disease.

In most people, the symptoms come and go. Some people go for months or years without symptoms (remission). Then they will have a flare-up. About 5 to 10 out of 100 people with ulcerative colitis have symptoms all the time.1

Doctors ask about the symptoms, do a physical exam, and do a number of tests. Testing can help the doctor rule out other problems that can cause similar symptoms, such as Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and diverticulitis.

Tests that may be done include:

  • A colonoscopy. In this test, a doctor uses a thin, lighted tool to look at the inside of your entire colon. At the same time, the doctor may take a sample (biopsy) of the lining of the colon.
  • Blood tests, which look for infection or inflammation.
  • Stool sample testing to look for blood, infection, and white blood cells.
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