You know all too well that ulcerative colitis (UC) causes you to have diarrhea, stomach cramps, fatigue, and bloating.
Is UC the same as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other digestive diseases with similar symptoms?
How do stress, exercise, and food affect your UC flare-ups? Are your kids at risk of getting UC because you have it?
Check out these answers to your top questions about UC:
Is UC the same as Crohn’s disease?
No. But both are types of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, which means you have inflammation in your digestive tract.
UC and Crohn’s have symptoms like diarrhea, belly pain, and blood in your poop. Each starts when you’re younger, often in your teens. Both happen when your immune system goes haywire and attacks your body.
What’s the difference between UC and Crohn’s?
UC affects your colon, or the lower part of your bowel. UC inflammation is spread through your whole colon.
Crohn’s can affect any part of your digestive tract, even your mouth. In Crohn’s, parts of your intestine may have no signs of disease, while other spots may be inflamed and damaged.
UC inflammation usually affects tissue that lines the inside of your colon. Crohn’s inflammation can strike all the layers of your bowel tissue.
Is UC the same as IBS?
No. Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder with several gut symptoms. It isn’t a disease like inflammatory bowel disease. UC, a type of IBD, is a disease.
UC and other types of IBD involve inflammation in your colon that can destroy bowel tissue. The damage shows up on tests, and you might have to go to the hospital or have surgery to treat it.
With irritable bowel syndrome, you don’t have any inflammation. IBS won’t damage tissue or show up on a colon exam or scan. The symptoms can be severe, but this condition won’t raise your cancer risk.
Some IBS symptoms are similar to those found in UC: diarrhea, ongoing stomach pain, nausea, or gas. But blood in your poop, losing weight when you aren’t trying, and fever are not symptoms of IBS.
UC and other types of inflammatory bowel disease can destroy bowel tissue. This damage shows up on tests. Sometimes the damage is permanent. The disease can make you more likely to get colon cancer. IBS doesn’t cause any damage to your tissue, so it won’t show up on a colon exam or scan.
Tissue damage in UC and other types of IBD can be permanent and raise your risk of colon cancer. IBS doesn’t damage your intestines or raise your risk of colon cancer.
Is UC hard to diagnose?
UC isn’t hard to diagnose. But you may need to take a series of tests so your doctor can rule out other illnesses that could be causing your symptoms.
The doctor will test your blood to see if you have anemia, meaning you have a low number of red blood cells. It's a common symptom of UC. You may need to give a sample of your stools so the doctor can look for white blood cells, another sign of UC. After that, your doctor might order a colonoscopy. During this procedure, they’ll insert a special tool into your colon to look for inflammation or to take a small piece of tissue, called a biopsy, to test in a lab.
Imaging tests like X-rays, MRI, and CT scans can also show signs of damaged tissue caused by UC and help confirm your diagnosis.
How do my food choices, alcohol use, and exercise affect my UC?
Your diet and lifestyle don’t cause you to get UC. But they can affect how you feel or even trigger a flare-up of your symptoms. Healthy habits can ease or prevent some UC symptoms, like diarrhea, and even lengthen the time between flares.
Certain foods may trigger UC symptoms: dairy products, spicy dishes, nuts, high-fiber foods like raw veggies and fruit, and even popcorn.
Alcohol and caffeinated drinks like coffee and black tea may stimulate bowel movements and worsen diarrhea. Bubbles from the carbonation in soda pop can cause you to have more gas.
Exercise is a good habit if you have UC. Regular activity can help your bowels work better and ease stress. If your UC is in remission, it can even delay the return of active disease. Some research suggests that regular workouts can have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body.
What role does stress play in UC?
Stress makes UC symptoms worse and can set off a flare. But stress didn’t cause your UC. People with UC are more likely to have stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
People with active inflammation are more likely to have stress and anxiety. The more severe your bowel symptoms, the more likely you are to have mental symptoms, too. People who’ve had an ostomy, a surgical treatment for UC, have the highest risk for anxiety and stress.
Exercise is one way to ease stress. You may also try biofeedback, guided imagery, yoga, and meditation to manage your anxiety. Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling or see a therapist. A mental health professional can help, too.
If I have UC, will my kids or other family members get it, too?
You’re at higher risk for UC if you have a close relative who has the disease. But most people who get UC don’t have it in their family. So it isn’t always something you get from your parents at birth.
Changes to genes (your doctor will call them mutations) could affect your odds of getting UC. Some genes may affect how the lining of your intestines protects you from bacteria and other things that cause disease. Other genes may play an active role in inflammation in your intestines.
More research might tell us how different genes are involved in UC and could even help doctors diagnose and treat the disease.