What is Ulcerative Colitis?

General Surgery Gastroenterology
adult man having abdominal pain

Also called UC, ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of your large intestine and rectum. The main symptoms that people with UC have include bloody bowel movements or diarrhea. UC also causes sores (ulcers) to form in the gastrointestinal tract.

People with ulcerative colitis have flare-ups (when symptoms are active and can be severe) and periods of remission, which is when symptoms go away. Remission can last for a few weeks to several months or years.

How common is Ulcerative Colitis?

According to Medscape, in the United States, approximately 1 million people are affected with ulcerative colitis. Fortunately, scientific advances have helped scientists better understand UC and how it can be treated, according to according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

What Causes Ulcerative Colitis?

Doctors are not exactly sure what causes ulcerative colitis. However, research has found that UC might be caused by problems with the immune system. Studies also suggest that an infection in your colon (large intestine) may cause inflammation, which seems to trigger the disease.

Ulcerative colitis also runs in families, so researchers believe that people with UC might have abnormal genes, making the condition a genetic disease. In fact, approximately 20 percent of people with inflammatory bowel disease have a close relative with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s.

What Are the Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis?

Most people with UC have mild to moderate symptoms. Some people can have long periods in which they do not have any symptoms, also known as remission. The symptoms of UC include the following gastrointestinal complaints:

  • Diarrhea, which might contain blood or pus
  • Waking from sleep to pass a bowel movement
  • Sensation of needing to pass a bowel movement but little to nothing passes
  • Abdominal pain and severe cramps
  • Rectal pain
  • Rectal bleeding, passing small amount of blood with bowel movements
  • Urgency to have a bowel movement
  • Inability to have a bowel movement
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

“Getting a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis is an important first step. The most important part of UC treatment is managing the symptoms of flares, while increasing the length of your remission,” says Michael Ney, M.D., gastroenterologist with Riverside Health System.

How is Ulcerative Colitis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will rule out other common gastrointestinal problems before making a diagnosis of UC. You might need the following tests or procedures to diagnose ulcerative colitis:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool sample
  • gastroenterologist
  • Flexible UC
  • X-rays of the abdominal area
  • CT scans or other imaging tests

It’s important to see your health care provider if you are concerned about your gastrointestinal health. The sooner you can relieve your UC symptoms, the better you will feel.

How is Ulcerative Colitis Treated?

Fortunately, UC is a treatable condition, and treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms.

“Additional new ulcerative colitis treatments are in development, and they can help you manage your symptoms so that you feel better,” says Dr. Ney.

If you have UC, discuss the following treatment options with your doctor:


A variety of medications are typically used to treat ulcerative colitis. These drug categories include:

  • 5-aminosalicylic acid (5-ASA), which reduces inflammation in the lining of the intestine
  • Corticosteroid medications, which reduce inflammation
  • Immunosuppressants, which reduce the activity of the immune system
  • Biologics, which are made from antibodies that are created in a lab

Dietary Changes

Your doctor might help you change your dietary habits or recommend that you talk with a dietitian to help manage your UC symptoms with nutritional changes or a special diet.


Some people with severe UC need surgery to improve their symptoms. The surgery involves removing part or all of the large intestine. Surgery is suggested when your medications don’t seem to help your symptoms, if your symptoms worsen over time, or if you have serious complications related to UC.

If you have ulcerative colitis, talk to your doctor or gastroenterologist about having a plan ready for managing UC flares. Having a plan in place can help you be prepared when you experience a flare, including having medication available when you need relief from your symptoms. If you are having symptoms of UC, talk to your doctor today. Find a Riverside gastroenterology specialist near you.

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