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Digestive system

Alternative Names 
inflammation of the bowel

Colitis is a general term that refers to the inflammation of the bowel, or large intestine.

What is going on in the body? 
Colitis causes the inside lining of the bowel to become inflamed and irritated. This can lead to a number of symptoms, depending on the problem causing the colitis.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
Specific symptoms depend on the cause of the colitis. They can include: What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
The most common causes of colitis include:
  • infection, such as traveller's diarrhoea
  • a change in the bacteria of the bowel, which is often due to the use of antibiotics
  • side effects of medications
  • poor blood flow to the bowel (ischaemic colitis)
  • damage to the bowel from radiation therapy
  • inflammatory bowel disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the bowel for unknown reasons
What can be done to prevent the condition? 
To reduce the risk of infectious colitis, a person can:
  • drink bottled water when traveling to places where there may be poor sanitation
  • avoid drinking from streams or lakes
Other causes of the disease cannot usually be prevented.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
The doctor may request that the person provide a stool specimen. This is examined under a microscope. Sometimes special tests are ordered. These include:
  • barium enema, which is a special x-ray test done after a fluid is injected into the bowel through the rectum
  • sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. These procedures that involve putting a thin tube into the rectum. The tube has a light and a camera on the end of it. The doctor can advance the tube to view the inside of the bowels. A colonoscopy goes deeper into the bowel than a sigmoidoscopy.
What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Long-term effects depend on the cause of the colitis. Colitis that is caused by infection usually goes away when treated with medication. Poor blood flow to the bowel may cause the tissue in the bowels to die. This is known as bowel infarction, and is life-threatening. inflammatory bowel disease may cause permanent changes in the bowel, and can even cause bowel cancer.

What are the risks to others? 
Infectious colitis can be contagious. Those affected should wash their hands with soap before handling food or drink. Other causes of colitis are not contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
Antibiotics may be required for infectious colitis. If antibiotic use has caused the colitis, the inflammation usually clears up when the medication is discontinued. inflammatory bowel disease is treated with medications to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system. When the condition is due to reduced blood flow, surgery may be necessary to correct the problem.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
All medications have side effects and may cause allergic reactions. Antibiotics can cause stomach upset. Anti-inflammation medications may cause bleeding in the bowel. Medications that suppress the immune system increase the risk of infection. Surgery carries the risk of infection, bleeding, and allergic reaction to the anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
A person with inflammatory bowel disease often needs lifelong treatment. An individual with other forms of colitis can often return to normal activities after treatment.

How is the condition monitored? 
Most individuals do not need monitoring after the colitis is treated. Those with inflammatory bowel disease and poor blood flow often need frequent visits to the doctor. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 1/03/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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