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What causes Ulcerative Colitis?

The exact cause of ulcerative colitis is not known, though some believe there may be a defect in the immune system where the body's antibodies actually attack the colon. Others think that an unknown microorganism or germ is responsible. Most feel there is a combination of factors, including heredity, which may be involved in the cause.

The primary problem in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is of course, inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the body needs to fight off foreign invaders in the body, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. In response to these, the body produces a variety of cells and chemicals intended to stop the invasion. These immune cells and chemicals have a direct effect on the body's tissues as well, resulting in heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. No one is sure what begins this cycle of inflammation in IBD, but what occurs is a swollen, boggy, inflamed intestine. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammation of the membrane lining the colon. Colitis causes inflammation and ulcers, in the top layers of the lining of the large intestine. Ulcerative colitis rarely affects the small intestine except for the lower section, called the ileum.

Inflammation causes the colon to empty frequently, causing diarrhea, and ulcers form where the inflammation has killed the cells along the lining. The ulcers bleed and produce mucus and/or pus. You may have abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, painful spasms (tenesmus), lack of appetite, fever, and fatigue. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the general name for diseases that cause inflammation in the intestines. Ulcerative colitis can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other intestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and to another type of IBD called Crohn’s Disease.

What are the Risks and Complications of Ulcerative Colitis?

Complications associated with ulcerative colitis include joint pain, eye lesions, low back pain, mouth ulcers, skin rashes, and liver disease. With frequent, repeated occurrences there may be a development of scar tissue and a thickened lining of the colon and rectum. Eventually this tissue may die or become infected. In severe cases, inflammation and thickening causes the colon wall to expand to beyond its normal size (megacolon), an emergency condition requiring surgery.

Colon cancer is a risk for those with ulcerative colitis. The risk to those with ulcerative proctitis does not seem to be any higher than that of the average person. Those with a history of family members having ulcerative colitis and those of Jewish decent are more at risk. Those with more extensive colitis (larger areas of the colon affected) and especially those having it for an extended period of time (8-10 years or more), have a higher risk of developing cancer. Risk estimates for those with ulcerative colitis developing colon cancer are 2 ½ times more likely to develop cancer at 10 years, 7 ½ times more likely at 30 years of ulcerative colitis and more than 10 ½ times more likely to develop cancer after 50 years having ulcerative colitis.