Perhaps you’ve been experiencing changes in bowel movements and stomach discomfort for some time. Because it didn’t just go away on its own, like the stomach flu, you’ve decided to visit your gastroenterologist or physician, who presents you with ulcerative colitis (UC) diagnosis. You may be wondering to yourself, now what? Do I have to eat certain foods or change my lifestyle habits? Can UC be cured or are the symptoms lessened? Is ulcerative colitis the same as Crohn’s disease? Read on to learn the answers to these questions, in addition to other facts you should know about UC.

What Is Ulcerative Colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is a particular type of inflammation of your digestive tract, particularly your large intestine (colon). Ulcerative colitis can affect the rectum as well. It is part of a group of diseases known as inflammatory bowel diseases or IBD. The inflammation, over time, results in a buildup of ulcers throughout the colon. This can cause noticeable symptoms of needing to empty the bowel frequently, often without warning. Mucus and pus may also be present in the colon lining. It is most common to be diagnosed with UC between the ages of 15 and 35, however, men over 50 are at increased risk as well.

What Causes Ulcerative Colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is classified as an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body attacks “good” cells as well as “bad” cells, which causes inflammation. Generally, it is thought that the cause of UC is an overactive immune response, but researchers do not know why some people are more prone to develop ulcerative colitis than others. Some risk factors for developing UC include:

  • Genes. If ulcerative colitis, IBD, IBS, or other digestive disorders run in the family, especially if it is a parent, your risk of developing UC increases. 
  • Environment. Certain things in the environment can trigger an immune response, which can, in turn, cause UC to develop. This can be bacteria, antigens, or viruses you are exposed to.
  • Other immune problems. If you have another autoimmune disorder, such as celiac disease, you are more likely to develop UC or IBD. 

If you have a history of digestive or autoimmune problems within the family, you should let your physician know, as a family history of IBD or other conditions may be a marker for colon cancer or other serious complications.

What Are the Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis?

As the lining of the colon becomes more inflamed, ulcerative colitis symptoms may change over time. In the beginning, common UC symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea and sudden urge to empty the bowels
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)

More advanced stages of ulcerative colitis may have symptoms that severely affect the quality of life, such as:

  • Fever
  • Blood in the stool
  • Joint pain
  • Red, burning eyes
  • Skin rashes
  • Inability to absorb nutrients (which can lead to a host of other medical problems)
  • Liver disease 

A good rule of thumb is to contact your health provider if you notice any changes in bowel movements. This is usually the first indicator that something is wrong. However, for an official UC diagnosis, your doctor will have to determine it is ulcerative colitis and not a different digestive disorder. 

What Is the Difference Between Gastritis, Ulcerative Colitis, and Crohn’s Disease?

Patients often ask, can gastritis be ulcerative colitis? The answer is no. While gastritis involves inflammation, it involves inflammation of another part of the digestive system, which is the stomach lining. However, gastritis and ulcerative colitis can be present at the same time. 

It is also important to note the difference between UC and Crohn’s disease. These are both classified as IBD and can be comorbid together, or a person may have just UC or just Crohn’s. One of the main differences between UC and Crohn’s is the area of inflammation. Ulcerative colitis affects only the colon or rectum, while Crohn’s disease can be present anywhere along the digestive tract, from mouth to anus. The other primary difference between UC and Crohn’s is the inflammation itself. UC tends to affect large surfaces, while Crohn’s can appear in patches. Also, Crohn’s is most likely to occur in the small intestine. 

How Is Ulcerative Colitis Diagnosed?

If UC is suspected, your physician will likely first-order blood tests and stool samples. The blood tests can show infection or anemia, which is a low iron level in the blood. This is a marker for UC and other inflammatory bowel diseases. A stool sample can show the presence of parasites, infection, or inflammation.

Your doctor may also order imaging tests and outpatient procedures. Imaging tests include MRI or CT scans. Outpatient procedures may consist of endoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. An endoscopy involves a long, thin tube inserted through the mouth with a camera on one end. The tiny camera takes photographs of your digestive tract. A sigmoidoscopy is very similar, but instead, a long, thin tube is used to view the lower part of the digestive tract (colon and rectum). Your doctor may also suggest a colonoscopy to check for other problems, such as polyps. 

How Is Ulcerative Colitis Treated?

There is no cure for UC, but symptoms can be managed with a combination of medical treatment and diet changes. There are certain medications your doctor may recommend, such as:

  • Aminosalicylates
  • Corticosteroids
  • Immunomodulators
  • Biologics
  • Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors

However, diet changes can help prevent ulcerative colitis flare-ups as well. If you’re wondering what you can eat, the ulcerative colitis diet is not terribly restrictive, but you’ll need to avoid:

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Foods high in fiber
  • High-sugar foods
  • Greasy food
  • Salt
  • Dairy products

In addition to not adhering to a healthier diet, ulcerative colitis flare-ups can also be caused by antibiotics, stress (emotional or otherwise), and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. These include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. If you have ulcerative colitis and need a pain reliever or fever reducer, acetaminophen is recommended, as it is an analgesic and not an NSAID. 

Carolina Digestive Is here to help, serving several locations in North Carolina

If you need more information about ulcerative colitis or IBD or want to be seen by a physician, please contact us today. We provide complete and comprehensive care when it comes to all types of gastrointestinal issues and concerns. Find us at one of our many locations.