What Is Ulcerative Colitis?

In my next post I will talk about my own experience with ulcerative colitis, but since it is not a well-known disease I thought I'd take some time to talk about it more generally. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are two major types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD - not to be confused with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS). In both diseases, your immune system overreacts to normal bacteria in the digestive system and causes inflammation. Crohn's can affect any point in the digestive tract, while ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon.

IBD affects approximately 1.6 million Americans. These diseases tend to run in families and affect men and women equally. They are chronic illnesses and there is no cure. The causes are not well understood.

Some of the most common symptoms are frequent and urgent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and abdominal pain and cramping. The disease can alternate between periods of remission and flare-ups of symptoms, and can be unpredictable and hard to treat.

Treatment usually begins with a class of medications called Aminosalicylates (5-ASA), such as balsalazide and mesalamine. These generally work best for mild to moderate ulcerative colitis. Corticosteroids such as prednisone are often used to quickly get a flare under control, but steroids have serious side effects and cannot be used long-term to control the disease. Immunomodulators and biologics (such as Remicade and Humira) are used for those with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis, often when other treatments have not worked. Finally, surgery to remove the colon is an option when the disease fails to respond to medication. Removing the colon "cures" ulcerative colitis and eliminates the risk of colon cancer.

Interested in learning more about IBD? Visit the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America for more information. They also have a lot of great programs to raise awareness and to support those living with these diseases.