What Are the Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 7:18:14 PM ET
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Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition that develops in your intestines over time and has symptoms that come and go. Many of its early symptoms resemble those of other conditions, which is why it's important to learn more about what distinguishes this disease from other issues you may experience with your digestive system. Learn more about what ulcerative colitis is, the common symptoms it presents and how you can manage them to live comfortably with this condition.

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The Basics of Ulcerative Colitis

Understanding ulcerative colitis involves understanding some key parts of your digestive system — your intestines in particular. Your digestive system is a large network of organs that are joined together, and their main function is to process the food you eat, breaking it down and drawing nutrients from it before expelling digestive waste products from your body. When partially digested food leaves your stomach, it enters your small intestine. This hollow, tube-like organ continues breaking down the food and absorbing digested nutrients, which it transfers into your bloodstream. 

After leaving your small intestine, the food enters your large intestine. This organ absorbs excess fluids from the waste products of the digestion process, which include remaining undigested food and old cells that have sloughed off in your digestive tract. In absorbing the excess water from this matter, your large intestine transforms digestive waste into stool that moves into your rectum.

What Distinguishes Ulcerative Colitis?

Both your large and small intestines have an inner lining made up of cells that regenerate every seven days or so. Having new cells in this lining helps your body perform the difficult process of digestion. However, the lining can become damaged, getting swollen and inflamed and making digestion difficult for your body. When this irritation occurs in your large intestine, it's known as ulcerative colitis.

You may have heard of a bowel disease called colitis, which involves inflammation in the lining of your lower intestine. What makes ulcerative colitis different from this condition is that ulcerative colitis also causes sores, called ulcers, to form in your intestinal lining — it isn't limited to inflammation. As the cells of your intestinal lining slough off as part of the regeneration process, open sores form in their place. These ulcers may bleed or create pus and mucus in your intestines.

Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis vary based on how severely the condition presents itself and the area of your digestive system where it's located. One of the most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis is pain in your abdomen that can feel like a stomachache or episode of food poisoning. Cramping in your abdomen is another type of pain you may experience with this condition. You may also feel pain in your rectum, or you may feel a constant urge to defecate but are unable to do so despite how urgent the need seems. When you are able to pass a bowel movement, you may notice blood or pus mixed in with your stool. You may start to have diarrhea much more often when you have ulcerative colitis.

Some symptoms of ulcerative colitis don't feel like they involve your digestion. This condition can cause you to have a fever, and it might also make you feel fatigued or like you've lost your appetite. When you have ulcerative colitis, you may start losing weight if your body has trouble getting the nutrients it needs. This can also cause your bones to weaken or become brittle.

Just as ulcerative colitis causes ulcers in your intestinal lining, it can also cause sores or rashes on your skin. One other interesting symptom that often accompanies ulcerative colitis is joint pain. Doctors aren't entirely sure why this occurs, but it may have something to do with your genes. People who are more likely to have inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis are also more likely to develop arthritis or joint symptoms that mimic it. The difference with ulcerative colitis-related joint inflammation is that it flares up when intestinal inflammation is more severe. But, when the intestinal inflammation is under control, the joint inflammation also tends to fade away.

Location-based Symptoms

Your ulcerative colitis symptoms may vary based on the location in your large intestine where the inflammation and sores are occurring. When the ulcers and swelling are very close to your anus, you might only experience rectal bleeding without much pain. Cramping and the feeling that you need to void your bowels but can't are common symptoms of ulcerative colitis that affects your rectum and the lower portion of your large intestine.

If your entire large intestine is affected, you can experience a wide range of the symptoms listed here. Although it's less common for ulcerative colitis to impact your entire colon, when it does, it's more likely to result in severe pain, weight loss, an inability to eat and fever in addition to bloody stools.

Treatment Options for Ulcerative Colitis

Although there is no cure for ulcerative colitis, there are some treatments that can help you successfully manage symptoms and live comfortably when you have this condition. Your doctor will work with you to determine an appropriate treatment that takes into account your symptoms and the location of the inflammation and ulcers in your lower intestine.

Medications exist to help lessen the severity of ulcerative colitis symptoms. One class of drugs that contain a compound called 5-aminosalicylic acid work to decrease swelling in your colon. Corticosteroids are short-term options that lower inflammation in your intestines and can work to limit immune system activity that may make your symptoms stronger. Your physician may also give you anti-diarrheal medications in some cases.

If your ulcerative colitis is very severe, your doctor might recommend surgery to remove all or part of your colon. This is a way to eliminate the condition completely, but it's reserved for cases that cause severe distress and don't respond to other forms of treatment.

Changing your diet can help limit your symptoms. You may notice that certain foods cause your ulcerative colitis to flare up or become more painful; these are foods to avoid eating. Common trigger foods include dairy products, high-fiber veggies and whole grains, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks and spicy items. It may also help to eat more-frequent, smaller meals instead of larger ones.

Resource Links:

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works

https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=85&contentid=p00383

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ulcerative-colitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20353326

https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/data-statistics.htm

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10351-ulcerative-colitis

https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-is-ibd/medication/corticosteroids

https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-is-ibd