Ulcerative colitis is a rather unfamiliar disease to most people, yet it affects thousands of Canadians. Many of them aren’t even aware of it, though, because they haven’t seen a doctor for their symptoms and haven’t been given a proper diagnosis or treatment. Could you be part of this group?
What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis is sometimes given another medical name: inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This term actually encompasses two diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both these conditions are characterized by chronic and progressive inflammation in the bowel, whose development is variable and unpredictable. In the case of ulcerative colitis, the inflammation mostly affects the intestine (especially the part called “large intestine”) and rectum; it causes the symptoms that are typical of the disease, such as pain, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. This disease can occur at any age, but it usually starts before the age of 30, most often in adolescence or early adulthood.
The intensity of ulcerative colitis symptoms has a tendency to vary with time. There are periods of remission, during which the patient feels little or no symptoms, and periods of flare-ups, when symptoms return and wreak havoc on the patient’s quality of life.
It is possible to manage these symptoms by taking certain medications or having surgery.
What causes ulcerative colitis?
Medical research has not yet determined the exact causes of ulcerative colitis. However, it has been established that ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease. This means that a genetic predisposition leads to an inappropriate immune response by the bowel, which, to “defend itself” against “false aggressors” (infectious, dietary, environmental, etc.), attacks its own lining. This mechanism is to blame for the inflammation that causes the symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
Family history, diet and certain infections can stimulate the development of ulcerative colitis. In addition, other factors related to lifestyle can have an influence on the progression of the disease. For example, taking anti-inflammatories, such as over-the-counter ibuprofen, could lead to a flare-up, so it is best to avoid this type of medication when you have ulcerative colitis.
What are its symptoms?
The main symptoms of ulcerative colitis usually affect the bowels:
- abdominal cramps or pain;
- chronic diarrhea;
- swelling of the abdomen;
- constant need to have a bowel movement;
- rectal bleeding.
There can also be other symptoms, such as:
- loss of appetite;
- weight loss;
- low energy;
- joint pain;
- mouth ulcers;
- eye afflictions;
- liver afflictions;
- increased blood coagulation.
How is ulcerative colitis treated?
The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and flare-ups, as well as extending remission periods. Several options allow patients to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Drug treatments can include:
- intestinal anti-inflammatories (to reduce inflammation of the digestive tract);
- corticosteroids (to promote remission);
- immunosuppressive drugs (to maintain remission by suppressing the immune system’s activities; this prevents it from attacking the digestive system);
- antibiotics (to eliminate complications caused by an infection);
- medication to reduce diarrhea, if needed;
- dietary supplements (to prevent weight loss and undernutrition).
To take full advantage of your medications, it is important to follow the recommendations given by your doctor and pharmacist to the letter. Take them every day, as prescribed. Some of them have to be taken even when you are in remission and are showing no symptoms. Make sure you understand the mode of action of your medication, its dosage, most common side effects and warnings that may be associated with it.
The other common treatment in cases of ulcerative colitis is surgery, which consists of removing part of the affected intestine. It is appropriate when medical treatments are not effective enough, if there are complications and in severe cases. Globally, approximately one out of three sufferers of ulcerative colitis will undergo a surgical procedure in their life. Surgery for ulcerative colitis is curative. Although it can sound interesting, this therapeutic method does have a few risks; consequently, it cannot be an option for everyone. It can also have long-term consequences, such as wearing a colostomy bag to collect waste that was once evacuated by the bowel. Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons of the different types of procedures so that you can make an informed decision.
Living with ulcerative colitis
If you live with ulcerative colitis and wish to maintain your health as much as possible, here are a few tips:
- Identify the elements that trigger your symptoms; these might be, for example, certain foods.
- Adopt a healthy, balanced diet.
- Consult a nutrition specialist to help you create a diet that is adapted to your needs.
- Exercise regularly.
- Adopt good sleeping habits and learn to better manage stress.
- Always seek the advice of your pharmacist before taking over-the-counter medication.
- Follow your doctor’s recommendations. Because ulcerative colitis increases your risk of intestinal cancer, he or she will want you, among other things, to get tested regularly.
Fortunately, ulcerative colitis is not a fatal disease. However, it can still significantly jeopardize the well-being and quality of life of those who must endure its symptoms. If you are experiencing the symptoms described in this health file, it would be a good idea to discuss it with your doctor. Many diseases can cause such symptoms, but you might possibly have ulcerative colitis. The sooner you find out what is making you ill, the sooner you’ll be able to find ways to treat it. To lead an active, satisfying life, face these health issues head-on and don’t let them slow you down!