What Are the Causes of and Treatments for Colitis?

Hannah RileyLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:49:44 PM ET
Screen Shot 2020 05 12 At 12.35.53 Am Photo Courtesy: Sutter Health/YouTube

Colitis is a disease that affects your large intestine, which is also called your colon, causing a wide range of symptoms. This condition can be uncomfortable, but with effective treatments you can manage your symptoms with ease and focus on improving your overall health. If you’re experiencing discomfort in your lower abdomen, learn more about colitis causes and treatments and understand what to expect before meeting with your doctor to discuss your symptoms. 

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What Is Colitis?

To digest your food properly, your intestines have an inner lining made up of special cells that work to break down food and draw nutrients and water out of it. These cells regenerate about once a week or so in order to effectively handle the elaborate process of digestion. When this inner lining becomes swollen and inflamed, it results in colitis. Colitis goes through active periods, during which the inflammation and other symptoms worsen, and remission periods, during which you might not experience strong (or any) symptoms. 

What Causes Colitis?

Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes many cases of colitis. Because the causes are unknown, there’s no cure for colitis; if you have it, it’s a lifelong condition that you’ll work with your doctor to manage successfully over time.

Colitis is commonly involved in two conditions — Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis — that are known as types of inflammatory bowel disease. These disorders both cause the inflammation that’s a hallmark of colitis. Ulcerative colitis causes sores called ulcers in addition to swelling and inflammation in the large intestine. Crohn’s disease can occur anywhere along the digestive tract and may spread deeper into the tissues beyond the innermost layers of cells.

Doctors originally thought that colitis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease were autoimmune diseases, which happen when your immune system mistakenly attacks and tries to eliminate your body’s healthy cells instead of the pathogens that it’s meant to get rid of. However, as scientists have completed more research into these conditions, they’re starting to believe that, instead of attacking healthy cells, the immune systems in people with inflammatory bowel disease begin attacking harmless pathogens or even food in the gut, treating them like harmful substances. These “attacks” cause inflammation, swelling and pain as your body responds to what it thinks is an unhealthy invader. This chronic inflammation can lead to lasting damage to your digestive system.

Sometimes, the cause of colitis is known. Or, you may develop a bout of colitis-like symptoms, which essentially means your lower intestine becomes inflamed and swollen due to food poisoning, another type of bacterial infection, a virus or a parasite. If you’ve had radiation treatment to your colon or to organs in your abdomen, or if the flow of blood to your large intestine has been interrupted, you may also develop colitis. Allergic reactions can lead to this condition, too. In many cases where the cause is known, the symptoms typically fade, such as in the case of food poisoning that clears up within a few days, because the inflammation trigger is gone.

Symptoms of Colitis

To fully understand colitis, it helps to review the symptoms and see the different ways in which this condition can affect you. As you might expect with this type of inflammation, abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms. The inflammation can make the muscle layers in your intestines spasm, which causes cramp-like sensations in your lower abdomen. The spasms can also prevent your large intestines from absorbing extra water from digested food, which is one of the organ’s primary functions. When this happens, it can cause you to have bouts of watery diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common symptom of colitis, and you’ll likely experience pain that gets increasingly stronger until you have a bowel movement.

When you have colitis, it's also common to find blood or pus in your stools. These come from the inflamed intestinal lining sloughing off and breaking down. You may also feel an urgent need to have a bowel movement but will be unable to produce one. 

Although less common, other symptoms of colitis include a fever, chills and a general feeling of fatigue or lightheadedness. Having diarrhea frequently can also cause you to become dehydrated, which can cause you to urinate less frequently. Dehydration may also make you feel lightheaded or tired, and it may lead to dry eyes or a dry mouth.

Treatment for Colitis

There is no cure for colitis, but you may be able to manage it well by taking medications and making a few lifestyle changes. If your colitis has led to dehydration, one of the first treatments you may undergo is rehydration. You may be able to do this by drinking, but if your dehydration is severe, you may need to receive a special solution directly into your veins via an IV line. Rehydration helps stabilize your vital signs by giving your body the fluid it needs to function properly.

Once you're stable, you'll work with your doctor to determine which medications work best. Most medications targeted at treating colitis work to reduce inflammation. These include corticosteroids, which are best for short-term use, and other medicines that contain a compound called 5-aminosalicylic acid. These are commonly used to treat colitis that develops along with inflammatory bowel disease. If your colitis is the result of a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics to kill the harmful bacteria in your system.

In very severe cases of colitis, you may need to have part or all of your colon and some of your small intestine removed. However, your doctor will likely opt to try other available treatments before proceeding with surgical removal of your colon.

Although eating certain foods doesn't cause colitis, it can worsen the condition. You may notice that your symptoms flare up when you eat or drink certain things. It's helpful to keep a food diary and record what you ate and drank and how you felt afterward. If you notice a pattern, you can avoid these foods and beverages in the future. Alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, dairy products, greasy or fried foods, nuts and high-fiber foods are common triggers of colitis. While you're experiencing a flareup, eat bland, soothing foods like clear broths to soothe your colon and keep it from overworking itself while processing other foods.

Resource Links:

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001125.htm

https://crohnsandcolitis.ca/About-Crohn-s-Colitis/What-are-Crohns-and-Colitis

https://www.gwhospital.com/conditions-services/digestive-disorder-center/colitis

https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/whats-the-deal-with-autoimmune-disease

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6421792/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/crohns-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353304

https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/pdfs/aminosalicylates.pdf