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What is Ulcerative Colitis?

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes inflammation and ulcers (sores) in the gastrointestinal system. 

While UC and Crohns disease share similar symptoms and are both categorized as IBD, they are not the same illness. The difference between these two diseases is that they affect different areas of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.  Crohns disease affects any part of the GI tract from mouth to anus, and it can affect the entire thickness of the bowel wall. Whereas in UC only the colon and rectum (large intestine) are affected. The inner most lining of the large intestine can also be impacted. 

Patients with UC experience symptoms developing over time, rather than suddenly. The disease can affect people of any age, but most diagnosis occur before the age of 30. 

UC symptoms can be debilitating in nature and can potentially lead to life-threatening complications. While there is no known cure, treatment can greatly reduce signs and symptoms and bring about long-term remission.

There are four types of UC, each classified by location in the gastrointestinal tract:

·       Ulcerative proctitis. Inflammation is confined to the area closest to the anus (rectum), and rectal bleeding may be the only sign of the disease.

·       Proctosigmoiditis. Inflammation involves the rectum and sigmoid colon — the lower end of the colon with signs and symptoms including bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and pain, and an inability to move the bowels in spite of trying to.

·       Left-sided colitis. Inflammation extends from the rectum up through the terminal section of the large intestine and descending colon with signs and symptoms including bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and pain on the left side, and urgency to defecate.

·       Pancolitis. This type often affects the entire colon and causes bouts of bloody diarrhea that may be severe, abdominal cramps, pain, fatigue, and significant weight loss.

The exact cause of UC remains unknown but there is evidence that UC is the result of several factors that are not yet well understood. Abnormal immune response, genetics, microbiome, and environmental factors all contribute to the development of UC. Research suggests that UC could be triggered by an interaction between a virus or bacterial infection in the colon and the body’s immune response. 

Typically, the cells and proteins that make up your immune system protect you from infection. A normal immune response would cause temporary inflammation to combat an illness or infection. The inflammation would then go away once you are healthy and free of the illness. In ulcerative colitis patients, the inflammation persists long after the immune system should have finished its job. The body continues to send white blood cells into the lining of the intestines, where they produce chronic inflammation and ulcers. 

People who have had UC for eight years or more have a greater chance of getting colon cancer. The longer someone has ulcerative colitis, the greater their risk. That’s why it’s important for UC patients to continue regular check-ups with their gastroenterologists and maintain colon cancer screening per physician recommended intervals. 

Ulcerative colitis can be difficult to live with as flare-ups occur and it may seem like you always need to go to the bathroom. While difficult to live with, there are treatments available. The primary goal in treating UC is to help patients regulate their immune system better. While there is no known cure for UC and flare ups may reoccur, a combination of treatment options can help you stay in control of your disease and lead a full and rewarding life.

Treatment for UC is multifaceted and includes the use of medication, alterations in diet and nutrition, and sometimes surgical procedures to repair or remove affected portions of your GI tract.

While current options are available it’s important to note that clinical research is important to find new treatment options and cures for patients. IBD is extremely complex, and it is important to review the risks and benefits of all treatment options with your doctor. For more information about treatments and support systems in your community, contact the Medical Arts Health Research Group at or visit our website at