AUSTRALIAN GASTROENTEROLOGY INSTITUTE
arm of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia)
Website: www.gesa.org.au... Copies reviewed January 2006
If you have recently been told you have
ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, your first reaction may have been shock
that you have an illness which could affect you for the rest of your life. You
may also have felt some relief that at last you have an explanation for the way
you are feeling. There are probably many questions running through your mind. We
hope this information will help you to understand more about your condition, how
you can help yourself, and the sort of treatment you will receive.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term
used to describe two diseases, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, which
cause inflammation of the bowel.
Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation of the inner lining of the large bowel
(colon and rectum). When only the rectum is involved it is sometimes called
ulcerative proctitis or just proctitis. When the entire colon is involved it is
sometimes called pancolitis.
Crohn's disease causes inflammation of the full thickness of the bowel wall and
may involve any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus (back
passage). Most frequently the ileum, which is the lower part of the small bowel
(ileitis), the large bowel (colitis) or both (ileo-colitis) are involved.
Sometimes people get confused between inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and the
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The two conditions are quite different and so
are their treatments.
Despite a great deal of research, the cause
of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease is unknown. Some scientists believe
they may be due to a defect in the bodies immune system, its natural protection
against diseases. Others feel that infection by a bacterium or virus may be
important. However, there is no evidence that ulcerative colitis or Crohn's
disease are contagious. Relatives of people with IBD have a slightly greater
risk of developing either disease. Stress or diet are not thought to cause IBD.
Both diseases are more common in the Western world
IBD often develops between the ages of 15
and 30 but it can start at any age; it is uncommon in children. It is estimated
that about 23,000 Australian have IBD; approximately 10,000 have Crohn's disease
and 13,000 have ulcerative colitis.
People with either disease can develop pain
in the abdomen, weight loss, diarrhoea (sometimes with blood and mucus) and
tiredness. Some people may also experience fever, mouth ulcers or nausea and
vomiting. People with Crohn's disease of the anus can experience pain
(especially while passing a bowel motion) or an itch. A few people have disease
effecting other parts of the body and may experience swollen joints, inflamed
eyes, skin rashes or jaundice (yellow colour of the skin). The symptoms and
their severity vary from person to person and may flare up or improve over time.
Many people will experience periods of remission when they are completely free
of symptoms. With current medical treatment life expectancy is normal.
What tests are used to confirm the diagnosis of Ulcerative
colitis or Crohn's disease?
The diagnosis of Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
is sometimes delayed as the same symptoms can occur with other diseases. It is
usually necessary to exclude disease such as bowel infections or the irritable
Blood tests are useful to look for anaemia (low blood count) and to measure the
severity of inflammation. They can also detect vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
A faeces (bowel motion) specimen may be required to exclude infection. Most
people require an examination of part of the bowel, either by direct inspection
through a flexible tube inserted through the back passage (colonoscopy or
sigmoidoscopy) or mouth (gastroscopy), or by x-rays where dye is inserted into
the back passage (barium enema) or swallowed (barium meal or small bowel
series). There is no one test that can reliably diagnose all cases of IBD, and
many people require a number of tests.
The type of treatment you will be offered
depends on whether you have ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, the extent of
the disease, and the effect of the symptoms on your daily life.
The treatment of ulcerative colitis depends
on the amount of the large bowel affected and the severity of the inflammation.
A mild attack may be treated with drugs given directly into the rectum through
the back passage (eg. by an enema or suppositories) if the disease is confined
to the lower part of the bowel. Steroid tablets (usually prednisolone) may be
required if the inflammation is more severe or if more of the bowel is involved.
Occasionally anti-diarrhoeal drugs e.g. loperamide (Imodium) or (Lomotil) may be
Most people in remission are advised to take a drug to
reduce the chance of a relapse (eg. Sulphasalazine (Salazopyrine), mesalazine (Mesasal)
or olsalazine (Dipentum)); this is called maintenance therapy. These drugs may
also help to control a mild attack of ulcerative colitis.
Azathioprine (Imuran or Thioprine), a drug that reduces the activity of the
body's immune system, is sometimes used if colitis is difficult to control. For
more severe attacks treatment in hospital with steroid given directly into a
vein may be required.
If drug therapy is not effective, surgery to remove the large bowel (rectum and
colon) may be recommended. If this is done the disease is cured. Your doctor
will fully discuss the surgical options available to you and there will be time
to talk with a stome-care nurse or another person who has already undergone an
operation for ulcerative colitis.
The drugs used to treat Crohn's disease are
the same as those used for ulcerative colitis. However, maintenance therapy is
not as effective and is less commonly recommended. Active Crohn's disease is
generally treated with steroid tablets (usually prednisolone).
In contrast to ulcerative colitis, it is not possible to remove all of the bowel
which may be affected by Crohn's disease, so the disease cannot be cured by
surgery. However, some people do require surgery if drug treatment is
ineffective or if Crohn's disease causes a blockage or leak in the bowel.
Surgery may also be necessary for people with Crohn's disease of the anus which
is not responding to tablets.
You can obtain more detailed information about the drugs used in the treatment
of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease from the ACCA/AGI publication
"Drugs and Inflammatory Bowel Disease", and more information on
surgery from the ACCA/AGI publication "Surgery and Inflammatory Bowel
Eating a healthy balanced diet is important
if you have Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. It is particularly important
to eat enough to prevent weight loss. Some people are advised to take
nutritional supplements to maintain their weight. If you find that you can eat a
normal mixed balanced diet without any ill effects, then continue to do so.
There is no evidence that ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease are due to food
allergies. You may find that some foods seem to make your diarrhoea worse,
particularly foods with a high fibre content (eg. fruits, vegetables, nuts and
wholemeal grains), spicy foods or fatty foods. If so, it is sensible to reduce
the amount of these foods in your diet.
A few people with Crohn's disease are unable to absorb particular nutrients.
These individuals may need to take vitamin or mineral tablets. Some require an
injection of Vitamin B12 every 3 months. Nutritional deficiency is uncommon in
people with ulcerative colitis, although blood loss can lead to anaemia (a low
blood count), which may require iron tablets. However, there is no evidence to
suggest that extra vitamins or special food supplements are necessary or helpful
for most people with Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
IBD is uncommon in children but does occur.
Children with IBD develop the same symptoms as adults. However, untreated can
lead to delayed or impaired growth and it is important to keep inflammation
under control to prevent this. The treatment of children with ulcerative colitis
or Crohn's disease is very similar to that of adults with inflammatory bowel
People with IBD lead useful and productive
lives, even though they need to take medications. When their disease is
inactive, they feel quite well and are usually free of symptoms. People with IBD
can marry, engage is sexual activity and have children. They can hold down jobs,
care for families and enjoy sport and recreational activities. In short they can
lead normal lives.
Even though there is no cure for IBD, current medical therapy has improved the
health and quality of life of most people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's
disease. There is good reason to believe that research underway today will lead
to further improvements in medical and surgical treatment of inflammatory bowel
DIGESTIVE HEALTH FOUNDATION
The Digestive Health Foundation (DHF) is an
educational body committed to promoting better health for all Australians by
promoting education and community health programs related to the digestive
The DHF is the educational arm of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia,
the professional body representing the Specialty of gastrointestinal and liver
disease in Australia. Members of the Society are drawn from physicians,
surgeons, scientists and other medical specialties with an interest in GI
Since its establishment in 1990 the DHF has been involved in the development of
programs to improve community awareness and the understanding of digestive
Research and education into gastrointestinal disease are essential to contain
the effects of these disorders on all Australians.
Guidelines for General Practitioners and patient leaflets are available on a
range of topics related to GI disorders. Copies are available by contacting the
Secretariat at the address below.
Digestive Health Foundation 145 Macquarie Street SYDNEY NSW 2000
Phone: (02) 9256 5454 Facsimile: (02) 9241 4586 E-mail: email@example.com