Health Alert:

See the latest Coronavirus Information including testing sites, visitation restrictions, appointments and scheduling, and more.

Definition

Colitis is swelling (inflammation) of the large intestine (colon).

Causes

Most of the times, the cause of colitis is not known.

Causes of colitis include:

  • Infections caused by a virus or a parasite
  • Food poisoning due to bacteria
  • Crohn disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Lack of blood flow (ischemic colitis)
  • Past radiation to the large bowel (radiation colitis and strictures)
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis in newborns
  • Pseudomembranous colitis caused by Clostridium difficile infection

Symptoms

Symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain and bloating that may be constant or come and go
  • Bloody stools 
  • Constant urge to have a bowel movement (tenesmus)
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. You will also be asked questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • How long have you had the symptoms?
  • How severe is your pain?
  • How often do you have pain and how long does it last?
  • How often do you have diarrhea?
  • Have you been traveling?
  • Have you been taking antibiotics recently?

Your provider may recommend a flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. During this test, a flexible tube is inserted through the rectum to examine the colon. You may have biopsies taken during this exam. Biopsies may show changes related to inflammation. This can help determine the cause of colitis.

Other studies that can identify colitis include:

  • CT scan of the abdomen
  • MRI of the abdomen
  • Barium enema
  • Stool culture
  • Stool examination for ova and parasites

Treatment

Your treatment will depend on the cause of the disease.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outlook depends on the cause of the problem.

  • Crohn disease is a chronic condition which has no cure but can be controlled.
  • Ulcerative colitis can usually be controlled with medicines. If not controlled, it can be cured by surgically removing the colon.
  • Viral, bacterial and parasitic colitis can be cured with appropriate medicines.
  • Pseudomembranous colitis can usually be cured with appropriate antibiotics.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

  • Bleeding with bowel movements
  • Perforation of the colon
  • Toxic megacolon
  • Sore (ulceration)

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal pain that does not get better
  • Blood in the stool or stools that look black
  • Diarrhea or vomiting that does not go away
  • Swollen abdomen

References

Lichtenstein GR. Inflammatory bowel disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 132.

Osterman MT, Lichtenstein GR. Ulcerative colitis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 116.

Wald A. Other diseases of the colon and rectum. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 128.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 7/11/2019
  • Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

ADAM QualityA.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is the first of its kind, requiring compliance with 53 standards of quality and accountability, verified by independent audit. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial process. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics (www.hiethics.com) and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Share This Page: