Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the colon and rectum, and can cause severe belly pain, cramps, diarrhea and bleeding.
Ulcerative colitis may start slowly and get worse for many weeks. It can have times of remission (time when your symptoms get better) or mildly, moderately or severely active. It can be described as fulminant, which means that it is severely active and not responding to therapy.
Most symptoms of ulcerative colitis relate to bowel movements. But, the symptoms of ulcerative colitis can vary from person to person, based on where the disease is in the body and how bad the inflammation is.
The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are:
You might have weight loss or other symptoms that affect the entire body. The inflammation of ulcerative colitis can also affect your joints or skin, leading to painful joints and skin rashes. During a flare-up, symptoms may go beyond those that affect the digestive system, including:
Keep of track of any symptoms, how often you have them and how bad they are to talk about with your health care provider.
There are many tests your gastroenterologist can do to find out if you have ulcerative colitis. First, he or she will take your past health and family health info, listen to your symptoms, and do an exam to feel and listen to your belly. No one test makes the diagnosis, but testing is used to confirm the gastroenterologist’s clinical suspicion that ulcerative colitis is causing symptoms.
Ulcerative colitis is diagnosed by the presence of the common symptoms and endoscopic and biopsy (small tissue sample) findings of long-term inflammation in the large intestine.
Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you. Your doctor will tell you how to get ready for your test for ulcerative colitis.
While there is no cure for ulcerative colitis, there are many options to help treat it. The goals of treatment are to:
Treatment will depend on the severity of the disease, past complications and response to earlier treatments. Remember, everyone experiences symptoms of ulcerative colitis differently. If one treatment doesn’t work as well, there are other options. Just be sure to be in touch with your gastroenterologist often.
Treatment options for ulcerative colitis involve medications, surgery or a combination.
The goals of using medications are to start or keep up remission (no symptoms) and to improve quality of life. Each person reacts a little bit differently to each drug and many need a combination of drugs. While some of them have side effects, the benefits and symptom relief often outweigh those drawbacks. Learn more about each class of drug in the Living with IBD pages.
Even with the availability of medicines to treat ulcerative colitis, surgery may still be needed to manage the disease. There are a few types of surgery that your gastroenterologist with discuss with you.
Before having surgery for ulcerative colitis, it is important to understand what the aim of the surgery is, what will happen during the procedure and the length of the recovery period. Patients with ulcerative colitis having surgery should speak to other patients who have had the procedure. Previous patients are often very willing to share their experiences and add perspective.
No matter what you may be feeling upon hearing you have ulcerative colitis, it is of great value to know that you are not alone. Many places have support groups, both in-person and online, for people all ages that can be very helpful. Talk to your doctor about support groups at their office or the hospital or do your own research to get involved with the ulcerative colitis (and IBD) community.
If you are overwhelmed by your new diagnosis, don’t wait to reach out to a mental health expert to talk through the changes. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness, may be very helpful.
Working together with your health-care team, you can make a treatment plan just for you, to help control your symptoms and put you in charge of your ulcerative colitis.
Questions to ask your health care provider
If you don’t know something at any point, ask for more (or clearer) information! For some, hearing that they have ulcerative colitis is a relief, a reason for symptoms and a light at the end of the tunnel. For others, it can be scary and daunting. Many will have a mix of feelings. All of this is completely normal.
Taking your medicine and staying well hydrated and nourished can help keep ulcerative colitis under control. Sometimes, though, complications can happen. Often, with ulcerative colitis, these issues will need medical attention.
If you think you are having one of these complications of ulcerative colitis, let your doctor know right away.
Updated August 2020