Spotting the Early Signs and Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can create sores in the digestive tract. Ulcers develop in the inner lining of the large intestine. This part of the gastrointestinal tract is also referred to as the large bowel. It extends about 5 feet long and measures roughly 3 inches in diameter. The large intestine is responsible for absorbing water and various nutrients from waste that has already passed through the small intestine and then creating stool. Long-lasting inflammation and sores can affect the colon and rectum.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms usually develop slowly over time instead of all at once. Most sufferers of ulcerative colitis will experience mild to moderate symptoms, and rarely more severe issues. Some of those signs and symptoms to watch for include diarrhea, with or without blood and pus; rectal pain and/or bleeding; abdominal pain; abdominal cramps; weight loss; fatigue; fever; an urgency to have a bowel movement; and/or the inability to defecate despite sensing the need. In children, failure to grow and thrive is a sign to be wary of. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nausea and anemia can also be symptoms of this debilitating disease. Anemia is the condition of not having enough healthy red blood cells for oxygen to be carried between your body’s tissues. People with anemia often report feeling weak and/or overcome with fatigue. Less common symptoms may include the development of a rash, irritation of the eye(s), and/or joint soreness and discomfort.
The inflammation created due to ulcerative colitis can create chronic irritation and lead to swelling within the gastrointestinal tract. Many people who suffer from this disease benefit from periods of remission when symptoms are less apparent or disappear altogether. These periods of reprieve can last anywhere from weeks to years at a time.
When seeking care, a gastroenterologist is typically the medical professional who treats people with ulcerative colitis. A gastroenterologist is a medical specialist who diagnoses and treats people with all sorts of digestive, or gastrointestinal, diseases. Medical support should be sought if there are sudden and/or prolonged changes in bowel movement habits, abdominal pain, bloody stools, and/or recurring diarrhea that just won’t stop despite the use of over-the-counter medication.
Who is at risk of developing ulcerative colitis? No exact cause for the disease is yet known. Risk factors are important to be aware of, though. The onset of the illness usually occurs between 15-30 years of age, most commonly diagnosed in late adolescence and early adulthood. However, onset can occur after 60 years of age and occasionally develops at any age. People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at a particularly higher risk of developing ulcerative colitis. Researchers consider a few factors to play a significant role in causing the disease. Genes and environment play a role, as does an overactive intestinal immune system. Heredity has some part to play as the illness is more common in people with family members who have the disease. But it’s important to keep in mind that most people with ulcerative colitis do not have a family history. Stress and diet are not causes for the development of the disease but researchers believe these factors can be partially responsible for potentially aggravating pre-existent symptoms.
When suspecting a case of ulcerative colitis, a family doctor will first test for swelling in the abdomen, or abdominal distension. The doctor will then use a stethoscope to listen for sounds within the belly, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), and tap on the belly to check for possible discomfort, tender areas, and/or pain. A gastroenterologist, or digestive diseases doctor, will run blood tests to check for anemia or signs of infection. A stool sample, or sample of a bowel movement, will be taken to rule out any other disorders, such as any infections caused by bacteria, a virus, or parasites. A colonoscopy is performed to allow the medical team to see the entire colon with the help of a camera. Tissue samples, or a biopsy, can be taken at the time of the colonoscopy. Instead of a full colonoscopy which may further irritate a severely inflamed colon, the doctor might opt for a flexible sigmoidoscopy. This procedure involves examining the rectum with a flexible, lighted tube. More severe symptoms will likely require x-rays of the abdominal area, a CT scan of the colon, and/or other non-invasive tests to check both the large and the small intestines.
With no known cure, it is important to know which early signs and symptoms of ulcerative colitis to watch for, to pursue medical support as early as possible, and to follow up on potential treatments in order to ease symptoms. Remission for as long as possible is the goal of treatment at this point.
National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
World Journal of Gastroenterology