What Is Radiation Enteritis?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 23, 2024
3 min read

Radiation enteritis is a condition described by inflammation in the small intestine. It results from radiation therapy to the rectum, abdomen, or pelvis. People with cancer are often prescribed radiation as a treatment. While the treatment helps destroy tumors, it also has some risks. 

Radiation enteritis is among these risks. It could last for months or a few weeks. Up to 55% of people get the chronic form of this condition after radiation treatment. 

During radiation therapy, radio waves fall on the body continuously in an attempt to kill cancer cells. 

While this kills tumors, it also kills normal body cells. Continuous radiation triggers an immune response that leads to inflammation in the intestines and to radiation enteritis.

There is some evidence that shows that radiation enteritis is more common in people who get radiation therapy for gynecological or gastrointestinal tumors as compared to urological tumors. 

The symptoms of radiation enteritis differ depending on the person and their condition. They include: 

  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Mucus or blood from the rectum
  • Diarrhea
  • Rectal pain during bowel movement
  • Nausea and vomiting

People with radiation enteritis may also have a frequent urge to go to the bathroom. Some people also lose weight.

To diagnose radiation enteritis, your doctor will ask questions about your bowel movements. They will then ask about diarrhea, when it started, and how it looks.

If your stool has blood in it, the doctor will perform some diagnostic tests, such as endoscopy, to see the inside of your small intestine.

Your doctor may order a colonoscopy. In this test, the doctor inserts a lighted camera into your colon and checks the lower part of your small intestine for any signs of injury, inflammation, or damage. 

Doctors have a variety of scoring systems that they use to determine how severe your condition is. 

Radiation enteritis usually goes away on its own. But there are ways to treat and manage the condition. 

  • Drink a lot of water.
  • Your doctor may recommend that you take antioxidant supplements during radiotherapy to reduce side effects, such as inflammation of the intestines. 
  • If the doctor suspects you have bacterial overgrowth, they will give you oral antibiotics along with electrolyte replacements and vitamins. 
  • Your doctor may recommend medications to relieve diarrhea. In some cases, you may be prescribed pain medicines. 

In some cases, the surgeon may have to cut the malfunctioning part of the bowel to ensure further surgery is not needed later. However, most experts do not consider this a good treatment option, because it can increase complications. 

Do not use any medicine for pain relief or inflammation relief without consulting with your doctor first. If the symptoms worsen, talk to your doctor right away. 

Yes. You can reduce your radiation enteritis symptoms and speed up your recovery if you:

  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and reduce inflammation in the intestine. 
  • Do not drink alcohol. 
  • Avoid tobacco use. 
  • Do not eat spicy foods. 
  • Avoid eating fatty or fried foods until the symptoms of radiation enteritis go away.