What is Colitis?
Colitis refers to the acute or chronic inflammation of the membrane lining of the colon (large intestine or bowel) and can have many different causes. It is also the commonly used short name for ulcerative colitis, a condition which causes inflammation and ulcers in the top layers of the lining of the large intestine.
When inflammation occurs, the colon empties itself, frequently resulting in diarrhea. In areas where the inflammation has killed the colon lining cells, ulcers may develop which can then produce pus and mucus, or may also bleed.
People with inflammatory bowel disease also experience eye problems, joint problems, neck or lower back pain, as well as skin changes.
The diagnosis of colitis is based on an examination of your abdomen and other body systems. Your physician may perform a rectal examination to check for blood in the stool as well as any other rectal changes before moving on to more extensive investigations.
Common laboratory and imaging tests performed include:
- X-rays of the colon
- Stool sample
- Stool culture
- Blood culture
- Barium enema
- Ultrasound and CT scanning
Various Types of Colitis
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s colitis
- Diversion colitis
- Ischemic colitis
- Infectious colitis
- Fulminant colitis
- Chemical colitis
- Microscopic colitis
- Pseudomembranous colitis
Symptoms and Signs of Colitis
People may experience a wide range of symptoms depending on the specific type of colitis and its cause. These may include:
- Lower abdominal discomfort or cramps
- Tenderness in the abdomen
- Frequent loose bowel movements with or without blood
- Urgency and bowel incontinence
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling of the colon tissue
- Erythema (redness) of the surface of the colon
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss in chronic diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease
What Causes Colitis?
While cases of infective or chemical colitis usually have an identifiable cause, many of the other common causes of colitis do not have a clearly established etiology or cause. Researchers believe that the body’s immune system reacts to a virus or bacteria in a way which causes continuous inflammation in the intestinal wall.
Factors that Contribute to the Cause of Colitis
While some cases of colitis are more acute and resolve with prompt and correct treatment, the inflammation can be chronic in certain conditions, most notably Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The causes of both of these disorders are unknown, but certain features have suggested several contributing factors:
- Familial: Both conditions are more common in first-degree relatives than in the general population.
- Genetic: There is a high similarity of symptoms and increased incidence among identical twins, particularly those with Crohn’s disease.
Causes of colitis
- Various bugs may cause colitis such as bacteria (Salmonella, Shigella species, Campylobacter jejuni and Clostridium) commonly found in food or in contaminated water.
- Viruses such as the rotavirus or Norwalk virus can disturb fluid absorption and damage the mucus membrane lining the intestine.
- Protozoa such as Entamoeba histolytica may cause acute severe dysentery or chronic mild bowel movements, or there may be no symptoms at all.
- Colitis due to E. histolytica, also known as amebiasis, has become an increasingly prevalent infectious cause.
- Radiation-associated colitis: Localized areas of colitis may occur after treatment of the pelvic or abdominal region with radiotherapy at various periods.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: This is a common disorder of the intestine that leads to cramps, excessive production of gas, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown.
- Ischemic colitis: The mechanism of ischemia—massive decrease in the blood supply to the bowel—is not always known, but shunting of blood away from the mucosa is an important contributing factor. This disease often affects the elderly, the severely ill, or others with circulatory disorders.
- Antibiotic-associated colitis: This condition usually occurs in people receiving large dose antibiotics, especially after gastrointestinal surgery.
- Infectious agents or environmental toxins: No single agent has consistently been associated with either form of inflammatory bowel disease. Viruses have been reported in tissue from people with inflammatory bowel disease, but there is no compelling evidence.
- Immune defense mechanisms: Several alterations in immune regulation have been identified in inflammatory bowel disease. However, none of these findings have been specific for either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- Smoking: Smokers increase their risk of developing Crohn’s disease, and smoking is often a contributing factor in Crohn’s disease
- Psychological factors: There is little evidence relating possible emotional factors as a cause of inflammatory bowel disease. Psychological factors may change the course of the disease, as well as your response to therapy.
Help for Colitis
The treatment of colitis generally depends on the cause and the severity of the condition. In mild cases of diarrhea, drink lots of clear fluids like water, tea, lemonade or soup. Anti-diarrhea agents may be recommended to reduce the number of bowel movements and relieve rectal urgency.
For more serious episodes of colitis, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, or steroids may be prescribed. However, these prescription medications may also come with other side effects. As your symptoms improve, eat low-fiber foods and avoid dairy products and greasy foods for a few days.
Often severe attacks of inflammatory bowel disease require hospital admission and supportive care which includes bowel rest, IV fluids, and correction of any electrolyte imbalance. Surgery may also be required and can involve the removal of the affected portion of colon and bowel, but is usually a last resort.
Making strict changes to your diet will help to ease symptoms and keeping a food diary will enable you to identify foods that seem to worsen or trigger your symptoms. People with chronic colitis may need psychotherapy, counseling, and education. These types of treatments will help you and your family to control and manage the disease better.
Natural treatments can provide an effective, gentle alternative to conventional medicine, without the side effects commonly associated with prescription drugs. For a balanced approach, use a combination of therapeutic herbs to improve digestive health and reduce symptoms.
A medicinal herb called Matricaria recutita (German Chamomile) acts as an anti-inflammatory with anti-spasmodic and calming properties. Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) is also an anti-inflammatory, and helps to protect the digestive tract and reduce stomach acid secretions. Other effective herbs include Ulmus fulva and Slippery Elm, which reduce digestive pain and irritation. Sutherlandia frutescens has been used for thousands of years by the indigenous people of South Africa to treat chronic and acute digestive complaints.
More Information on Colitis
Tips to Prevent Colitis
There are some helpful ways to prevent the onset of colitis and they include:
- Practice proper hygiene and sanitation measures, especially where colitis may be associated with infectious agents
- Change your diet by including more fiber, fruit, vegetables, nuts and raisins
- Reduce your intake of lactose products and wheat
- Reduce your intake of red meat – combined with starches, it is a major source of constipation
- Drink lots of water to rid the body of any impurities
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid coffee and caffeine-containing drinks
- Avoid spicy foods
- Include yogurt into your diet, as it contains friendly bacteria that help stool to flow easily through the colon
- Avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, and slow-release potassium tablets if you have an inflammatory bowel disease – these drugs have the potential to worsen the disease
- Reduce your intake of alcohol
- Try to quit smoking in a natural manner
- Increase your intake of fat-soluble vitamins
- Educate yourself and your family about the disease