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What is colitis and how is it diagnosed?

Colitis is one of the two main types of inflammatory bowel diseases — diseases that affect more than 1 million people in the United States, according to research in Digestive Diseases and Sciences journal.

Ulcerative colitis is about as nice as it sounds. From frequent bathroom breaks to painful and debilitating symptoms, ulcerative colitis can make normal day-to-day functioning a challenge.

Colitis is one of the two main types of inflammatory bowel diseases — diseases that affect more than 1 million people in the United States, according to research in Digestive Diseases and Sciences journal. While there is still much to learn about this chronic disease and how to best treat those suffering, there is hope and healing for IBD patients.

Inflammatory bowel diseases

IBD is a group of diseases that cause chronic inflammation to the digestive tract. The two primary types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

IBD is not the same as irritable bowel syndrome, which is a disorder, not a chronic disease, that affects bowel contractions and does not cause intestinal inflammation.

Crohn's vs. ulcerative colitis

IBD falls on a spectrum, from Crohn's disease, which affects the entire digestive system, to ulcerative colitis, which affects just the colon and rectum. Because of this, the two conditions share a number of similar symptoms including the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Cramps and abdominal pain
  • Bloody stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and low energy

While there are many similarities in symptoms, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis also differ in key ways, as described by UCLA Health:

  • Ulcerative colitis affects the large intestinal area (colon and rectum), but Crohn's disease can occur anywhere along the GI tract between the mouth and the anus.
  • Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation of the innermost lining of the intestine, while Crohn's disease can affect all layers of the bowel wall.
  • Inflammation caused by Crohn's disease can manifest in patches throughout the intestines. However, ulcerative colitis is characterized by continuous inflammation along the entirety of the colon.

Symptoms of IBD range from mild to severe and affect each person differently. For example, about half of people with ulcerative colitis have mild symptoms, according to The Endoscopy Center. To best treat the symptoms, doctors need to determine the underlying condition and distinguish whether the symptoms stem from Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.

Diagnosing ulcerative colitis

Unfortunately, because Crohn's disease and colitis fall on a spectrum of IBD, this can make it difficult to diagnose and treat patients who land somewhere in the middle.

Despite sharing many similar symptoms, treatment options vary between the two conditions. What works well for ulcerative colitis is often ineffective in treating Crohn's disease, and vice versa. Therefore, to make an accurate diagnosis, doctors conduct a number of tests, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation:

  • Blood tests to identify inflammation and rule out other possible conditions
  • Stool samples to check for signs of inflammation or infection
  • X-rays, CT scans,or a colonoscopy to inspect the bowels for ulcers and inflammation

Once doctors are confident in a diagnosis, they can recommend treatment based on the types and severity of symptoms.

Treatment options

The exact cause of ulcerative colitis is unknown, but colitis is likely the result of a combination of genetics, environment and an over-reactive immune system. Although it affects the colon and rectum, colitis is not caused by or necessarily exacerbated by a patient's diet.

With no known cure, the primary goal of treatment is symptom management through therapeutic medication, such as antibiotics, corticosteroids, immune modifiers, pain relievers and antidiarrheals. If medication is ineffective, surgery may be required to remove the colon and rectum.

Fortunately, treatment makes it possible for many patients to resume normal activities and lead healthy lives. As research into this disease progresses and therapeutic treatments continue to improve, the future is looking brighter than ever.

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from an inflammatory bowel disease, make an appointment with The Endoscopy Center, so you can move forward with a diagnosis and begin treating the problem.