American College of Gastroenterology
Advancing Gastroenterology, Improving Patient Care

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)


Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Overview

About Inflammatory Bowel Disease Information for patients about ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, including tips to make the most of your doctor visit. Learn More







Ulcerative Colitis

UC Guidebook and DVD The American College of Gastroenterology wants to help patients understand that UC is a treatable condition that can be managed effectively. Learn More




What You Should Know

colon-img-smallUlcerative colitis (UC) is a disease marked by inflammation of the lining of the colon and rectum, together known as the large intestine. Learn more

dr-patient-consultCrohn's disease (CD) is a chronic disease that can cause inflammation anywhere from the mouth to the anus anywhere along the lining of the digestive tract. It most commonly affects the small intestine and the colon. Learn more



Audio Podcasts: ACG Experts Answer Common IBD Questions

Dr. Sunanda V. Kane

Insight on Fertility, Reproduction; Diet and Nutrition

Diet, nutrition, fertility and pregnancy issues are a concern for IBD patients and their loved ones. Dr. Sunanda V. Kane offers insight and tips on issues related to IBD and reproduction; as well on diet and nutrition. Listen Now

Dr. William J. Sandborn

New and Emerging Therapies for IBD

Dr. William J. Sandborn offers insight on new and emerging IBD therapies, the importance of clinical trials and the outlook for individualized therapies. Listen Now

Dr. Marla C. Dubinsky

Challenges Facing Children and Teens with IBD

Children and teens with IBD face unique challenges. Dr. Marla C. Dubinsky sheds light on these challenges, including the psychological aspects and offers tips for parents. Listen Now

IBD Overview

  • What is the difference between Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease?

    Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are two types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The large intestine (colon) is inflamed in ulcerative colitis, and this involves the inner lining of the colon. In Crohn's disease the inflammation extends deeper into the intestinal wall. Crohn's disease can also involve the small intestine (ileitis), or can involve both the small and large intestine (ileocolitis).

  • How is IBD different from Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

    IBD develops due to inflammation in the intestine which can result in bleeding, fever, elevation of the white blood cell count, as well as diarrhea and cramping abdominal pain. The abnormalities in IBD can usually be visualized by cross-sectional imaging (for instance a CT scan) or colonoscopy. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a set of symptoms resulting from disordered sensation or abnormal function of the small and large bowel. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is characterized by crampy abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation, but is not accompanied by fever, bleeding or an elevated white blood cell count. Examination by colonoscopy or barium x-ray reveals no abnormal findings.

  • What is the cause of IBD?

    There is no single explanation for the development of IBD. A prevailing theory holds that a process, possibly viral, bacterial, or allergic, initially inflames the small or large intestine and, depending on genetic predisposition, results in the development of antibodies which chronically "attack" the intestine, leading to inflammation. Approximately 10 percent of patients with IBD have a close family member (parent, sibling or child) with the disease, which lends support to a genetic predisposition in some patients.

  • Is IBD caused by stress?

    Emotional stress due to family, job or social pressures may result in worsening of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome but there is little evidence to suggest that stress is a major cause for ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. Although IBD is not caused by stress recent studies show that there may be a relationship between the two--stressful periods in life may lead to a flare of disease activity in persons with the underlying diagnosis of IBD.

  • How is IBD diagnosed?

    There is no single test that can make the diagnosis of IBD or completely rule out its existence reliably. Colonoscopy, cross-sectional imaging studies of the colon or the upper GI tract, along with newer blood tests that detect markers that are commonly associated with IBD, along with a patient's history and physical exam, can all be useful in helping your doctor establish a diagnosis of IBD.

  • What are the complications of IBD?

    Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease can lead to diarrhea, bleeding, anemia, weight loss, fevers, malnutrition and fistulae. IBD can also have extra-intestinal manifestations where areas other than your gastrointestinal system such as your skeletal system, your skin or your eyes may be involved.

  • Is diet management important for patients with IBD?

    Physicians prefer to maintain good nutrition for those diagnosed with IBD. If you are responding well to medical management you can often eat a reasonably unrestricted diet. A low-roughage diet is often suggested for those prone to diarrhea after meals. If you appear to be milk sensitive (lactose intolerant), you are advised to either avoid milk products or use milk to which the enzyme lactase has been added.

  • How successful is medical therapy?

    With early and proper treatment the majority of patients with IBD lead healthy and productive lives. Some patients may require surgery for treatment of complications of IBD such as an abscess, bowel obstruction or inadequate response to treatment.

  • What are surgical options for IBD?

    Crohn's disease of the small or large intestine can be treated surgically for complications such as obstruction, abscess, fistula or failure to respond adequately to treatment. The disease may recur at some time after the operation.

    Ulcerative colitis is curable with removal of the entire colon. This may require creating an "ileostomy" (with attachment of the ileum to the external abdominal wall with an external application pouch) or may involve the direct attachment of the small intestine (ileum) to the anus. This type of surgery, known as "IPAA surgery," does not require an external application pouch

Crohn's Disease

If you have persistent symptoms such as diarrhea and abdominal pain or cramps, it could be Crohn’s disease. A chronic disorder, Crohn’s disease may cause you to have a wide-range of digestive symptoms that may be mild or severe and may flare up over time.

  • What is Crohn’s disease?

    Crohn’s disease is when there is irritation in the intestines. This is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It can affect anywhere from the mouth to the anus (end of the bowel).

    Crohn’s disease usually occurs in the last part of the small intestine and the beginning of the colon. Sometimes it can show up in patches anywhere in the intestines though. If the irritation goes on for too long it can cause damage. This damage can be scar which narrows the bowel. Also, the body can form a tunnel going from inside the bowel out to the surface. This is called a fistula and can attach the bowels to other body parts like the skin or bladder. When this happens other problems can occur.

  • What is the outlook for people with Crohn’s disease?

    Since Crohn’s disease has no cure, medicines are need to keep it under control. Usually this works and people can go a long time without issues. But sometimes Crohn’s can still flare up even when on medicine. If that happens, different medicines can be tried. It is important to always take your medicine even when you feel good. If the irritation in gut comes back, you may not feel it. If irritation goes on for a long time, damage can happen that may need surgery to fix. The best way stop that is to look for signs of irritation and damage. Seeing your doctor for check-ups can do this and help you feel as good as possible.

    Women who have Crohn’s disease can get pregnant and everything be normal. If you have Crohn’s disease and want to get pregnant, you should talk with your Crohn’s doctor first. The best time to get pregnant is when you are feeling good. This will lower the chances of any problems with the pregnancy. If you do get pregnant when the irritation is bad, that can higher the chances of problems like losing the baby. This is why it’s important to keep the irritation under control after you get pregnant.

  • What are the signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease?

    Signs and symptoms can be mild or severe and can be different. It depends on the part of the digestive tract involved. Symptoms usually build over time but also can happen suddenly.

    The most common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are:

    • Diarrhea
    • Pain and cramping in the abdomen (belly)
    • Feeling tired
    • Feeling the need to have a bowel movement
    • Fever
    • Weight loss

    Other symptoms may include:

    • Blood in the stool
    • Drainage around the anus
    • Joint pain
    • Lack of hunger
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Pain, redness, or swelling in the eyes
    • Rashes
  • When should I see a doctor about Crohn’s disease?

    The signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease can be like other conditions. If you have any symptoms, or changes in your bowel habits that don’t go away, see your doctor and get checked out.

  • What causes Crohn’s disease?

    Doctors don’t know the exact causes of Crohn’s disease. They think certain factors could be involved, such as:

    • Genes: People who have a family member with Crohn’s disease are more likely to get it.
    • Immune system: Infection can start Crohn’s disease. This is by turning the immune system on to attack the bowels but it never turns back off.
  • What are the risk factors for Crohn’s disease?

    Risk factors for Crohn’s disease can include:

    • Age: Most people get it are in their twenties, but it can happen at any age.
    • Family history: If you have one parent with Crohn’s disease, odds of getting it are 7 to 10 percent. If both parents have it, the odds go up to 35 percent.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): While medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen do not cause Crohn’s disease, they can worsen inflammation and make the disease worse.
    • Race and ethnicity: White people and people of Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi Jewish) descent are at the highest risk.
    • Smoking: Tobacco use doubles the risk of Crohn’s disease. It also increases the chances of having a more severe form that needs surgery.
    • Location: People who live in more developed countries and cities are also at higher risk.
    • Antibiotics: These can change the healthy bacteria living in the colon. These play a part in how the immune system is working in the intestines.
  • Who should be evaluated for Crohn’s disease?

    See your doctor if you have any of the signs, symptoms, or risk factors for Crohn’s disease. Your doctor will perform an exam and testing. This will see if you do have it or another condition instead.

  • How is Crohn’s disease diagnosed?

    Your doctor will hear your symptoms, medical history and risk factors. They will also do an exam looking for any signs. No one test for Crohn’s disease exists, but a mixture of tests can rule out other problems and make the diagnosis.

    Tests that you may need:

    • Blood tests: Look for signs of infection, anemia (low blood count), low vitamin levels and abnormal liver tests.
    • Stool samples: Check for blood, inflammation or infections in the stool.
    • CT scans or MRI imaging: X-rays that see parts of the digestive tract in more detail. Can also see other parts of the body too.
    • Barium x-rays: Also an x-ray that shows how the bowel is shaped and looks. Can be done by drinking a liquid or having it put inside your bowel with an enema.

    Doctors may also use diagnostic procedures such as:

    • Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy: Using a thin, flexible tube with a lighted camera, your doctor looks at the inside lining of the colon. They can possibly see the lower end of the small intestine as well.
    • Biopsy: Your doctor may perform this during a colonoscopy. A small tissue sample is taken and looked at under a microscope.
    • Upper endoscopy: Also called an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD), this procedure examines the upper part of the digestive tract.
    • Capsule endoscopy: You swallow a pill containing a tiny camera. This takes pictures of the digestive tract. It then sends the pictures to a computer for your doctor to look at.
  • What are the treatments for Crohn’s disease?

    Currently, there is no cure for Crohn’s disease. But treatments work differently in different people. There are many goals of treatment. They are to relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life. Also to heal the inflammation and prevent damage.

    Doctors usually start medicines to make symptoms go away. Then you can get medicines to keep it under control and prevent it from coming back.

    Medications

    Your doctor may use one or more medications such as:

    • Steroids: Some decrease inflammation throughout the body by suppressing the entire immune system. Others work just in the bowel and do not affect the immune system.
    • Immunosuppressant medications: These medications reduce the body’s immune response. This reduces inflammation and allows the intestine to heal.
    • Biologic therapies: These medications block the body’s immune response. Doctors typically use biologic therapies to treat moderate to severe Crohn’s disease.
    • Antibiotics: These medications are used if a pocket of pus (called an abscess) or a fistula are present. They may also be used to get rid of harmful bacteria in the intestines that could be making things worse.

    Nutrition therapy

    • In children, special liquid diets can help some in treating Crohn’s disease. But these can be hard to drink and so are usually given through a tube. This is hard to do for a long time for most people.
    • Some people may need fluid nutrition injected through an IV and to not eat or drink anything. This is used in more severe cases.

    Surgery

    If other treatments do not work or if a complication happens, then surgery can be done. This is just a short-term fix though. Surgery will not cure the Crohn’s disease. The surgeon just removes the damaged or abnormal part of the digestive tract and reconnects the healthy areas. About half of the people with Crohn’s disease need surgery over the course of their lifetime.

    Alternative medicine

    Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, such as acupuncture, fish oil, or nutritional supplements, have not shown much benefit for treating Crohn’s disease.

  • Am I at risk of developing other conditions?

    People with Crohn’s disease can develop problems due to the condition. Others may have side effects from medications. Some common issues include:

    • Anal fissures: A tear in the lining of the anus or in the skin around the anus. This can cause painful bowel movements, blood in the stool, or itching of the anus.
    • Ulcers: These open sores in the digestive tract, can also happen in the mouth, genital area or anus.
    • Fistulae: If ulcers go through the intestinal wall, an abnormal tunnel between different areas can form. Fistulas can lead to drainage, infections, and diversion of food. This can prevent you from getting enough nutrients.
    • Bowel obstruction: Long-term inflammation can cause scar tissue to form. This can thicken and narrow areas of the bowel, blocking the flow of digestive contents. Medications can reduce inflammation and open the narrowed areas. Others require surgery to remove the diseased portion of the bowel instead.
    • Malnutrition: Symptoms of Crohn’s disease may make eating difficult. Intestinal inflammation can prevent proper absorption of vital nutrients that are needed to stay healthy.
    • Colon cancer: Crohn’s disease that affects the colon increases the risk of developing colon cancer. People with Crohn’s disease should have colonoscopies more often than people without this risk factors. In certain situations, your doctor may want to spray a dye in the bowel (this is called “chromoendoscopy”) during your colonoscopy to see better.
  • What are some recommendations for living with Crohn’s disease?

    If you have Crohn’s disease, healthy lifestyle habits can help you maintain a good quality of life. Talk to your doctor about:

    • Healthy eating plan: Making some changes can help reduce symptoms. But diet alone cannot be used to treat your Crohn’s disease. Working with a dietician can be helpful to create a healthy eating plan and help you follow it. Dietary changes that help:
      • Eating nutritious foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains)
      • Drinking plenty of liquids
      • Avoiding carbonated (fizzy) drinks
      • Avoiding a lot of high-fiber foods such as popcorn, vegetable skins, or nuts
      • Avoiding fatty, fried foods, or fast foods
      • Avoiding processed, sugary foods (junk food)
      • Taking vitamins (such as vitamin D or vitamin B12) or other nutritional supplements, if recommended by your doctor
    • Exercise: Make time for regular physical activity each day. Exercise can be as simple as walking for 10 to 20 minutes per day. It can help relieve stress and decrease symptoms.
    • Smoking cessation: Quitting smoking reduces your risk of health complications due to Crohn’s disease.

Ulcerative Colitis

  • What is Ulcerative Colitis?

    Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a disease marked by inflammation of the lining of the colon and rectum, together known as the large intestine. This inflammation causes irritation in the lining of the large intestine which leads to the symptoms of UC.

    Though UC always affects the lowest part of the large intestine (the rectum), in some patients it can be present throughout the entire colon. UC belongs to a group of diseases called inflammatory bowel diseases which also includes Crohn's disease (CD). Though it was once thought that UC and CD were two different diseases, as many as 10% of patients may have features of both diseases and this is called IBD-U (IBD-Unclassified). It is important to note that inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is different from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

  • What are the symptoms of UC?

    The symptoms of UC depend on the severity of inflammation and the amount of the colon that is affected by the disease.

    In patients with mild to moderate inflammation, symptoms can include:

    • rectal bleeding,
    • diarrhea,
    • mild abdominal cramping,
    • stool urgency, and
    • tenesmus (discomfort and the feeling that you have not completely emptied your rectum after a bowel movement).

    When more severe inflammation is present, patients often develop:

    • fever,
    • dehydration,
    • severe abdominal pain,
    • weight loss,
    • loss of appetite or
    • growth retardation (in children and adolescents with UC).
    • Individuals with moderate or severe inflammation may also have to wake up at night to have bowel movements and may lose control of bowel movements.

    Some of the symptoms of UC may be non-specific and could be caused by other diseases such as Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or infection. Your doctor can help determine the cause of your symptoms and should be consulted should you experience a significant change in your symptoms.

  • How is UC diagnosed?

    Your doctor will usually suspect the diagnosis of UC based on your symptoms, but confirmation of the diagnosis requires testing.

    • Blood work is often checked to look for markers of inflammation or anemia (low blood counts), though these tests can be normal in patients with mild disease.
    • Tests of your stool to look for evidence of an intestinal infection are often obtained.
    • Radiologic images including x-rays and CT scans are usually not recommended but may be performed.
  • What endoscopic tests are used to diagnose UC?

    All patients with symptoms consistent with UC should have a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy to confirm the diagnosis, assuming that they are healthy enough to undergo the procedure. During this procedure, your gastroenterologist will be able to directly examine the lining of your colon and rectum to look for evidence of inflammation and take small biopsies to be examined under a microscope to look for the cause of the inflammation.

  • What causes UC?

    The way in which patients get UC is still poorly understood.

    Causes may include an interaction between:

    • the unique genetic makeup of an individual,
    • environmental factors, and
    • a patient's specific immune system that triggers the disease.
  • What is known about risk factors for UC?
    • UC is not an infection that can be passed from person to person.
    • Men and women are equally affected by UC.
    • UC is more common in first degree relatives (siblings, parents, and children) of patients affected by UC and up to 10% of patients will have an affected family member. Despite the influence of genetics, the majority of patients with UC do not pass the disease to their children. There is no way to predict those at higher risk.
    • Cases of UC have been identified throughout the world though certain populations, including those living in Northern climates and those of Jewish descent, are at higher risk of developing UC.
    • Individuals having their appendix removed prior to the age of 20 appear to be at lower risk of developing UC.
    • No specific infectious agent has been linked to UC. Diet, breast feeding, and various medications have also been examined, but none have been found to cause UC.
    • It has been observed that some patients develop UC when they quit smoking, and current smokers have lower rates of UC than non-smokers. Furthermore, those who smoke and have UC tend to have a milder course of UC than those who do not smoke (note that this is the exact opposite effect that smoking has on Crohn's disease). Despite the protective role smoking appears to have on the development and natural history of UC, it is not recommended that patients start smoking to prevent UC due to the fact that there are so many other illnesses and cancers in which smoking is a definite risk factor.
  • What are the possible complications of UC?

    The complications of UC can be divided into those affecting the colon and those occurring outside of the colon.

  • What are the complications of UC within the colon?

    Within the colon, UC can rarely lead to colon cancer or toxic megacolon (a rare but potentially lethal widening of the large intestine).

  • What is the risk of Colon Cancer in UC?

    UC is known to increase the risk of colon cancer. Those patients who have had UC for a long time and those with a longer length of the colon affected are at higher risk of developing colon cancer. In general, patients begin to have an increased risk of colorectal cancer 8 years after the onset of disease symptoms and should have colonoscopy every one or two years starting at this time.

    Colon cancer is a rare complication and it is thought that it may be preventable based on control of inflammation of the colon and careful colonoscopy examinations that look for any pre-cancerous changes called dysplasia. Overall, the risk of colon cancer increases 0.5 percent yearly after ten years of disease though patients with inflammation throughout their colon may be at higher risk.

    Those patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) are at greatest risk for colon cancer and need to start screening upon diagnosis.

  • What are the risks outside of the colon in UC patients?

    Patients with UC are also at risk for extra-intestinal manifestations of UC (complications outside of the colon). These complications most frequently involve the liver, skin, eyes, mouth, and joints.

  • What are the complications within the liver in UC patients?

    Within the liver, patients with UC may develop primary sclerosing cholangitis. This occurs in about 3% of patients with UC. PSC can progress even if UC is not active and it is often detected by elevations in liver blood tests and confirmed by the use of MRI scans such as Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) or endoscopic procedures such as Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

  • What rashes can appear UC patients?

    Patients with UC can develop sores in the mouth or rashes on the skin that generally only appear when UC colon symptoms are active. The most common rashes that are seen in UC are erythema nodosum (EN) and pyoderma gangrenosum (PG).

    • EN usually presents as a red, raised, painful area most commonly on the legs and is most often seen during flares of UC.
    • PG also presents as raised lesions on the skin (most frequently on the legs) that often develops after trauma to the skin and can lead to the formation of ulcers. Unlike in EN, the appearance of skin lesions in PG may or may not mirror the activity of bowel symptoms. The eyes can become red and painful (uveitis) and vision problems should be reported to your doctor.
  • How does UC affect the joints in in UC patients?

    Arthritis is commonly associated with UC and can affect either small (such as the fingers/toes) or large joints (often the knee), though involvement of the smaller joints may have a course that is not related to activity in the colon. The joints of the spine can be affected as well, though this is less common than it is in Crohn's disease.

  • What are mood problems that may impact UC patients?

    As in other chronic medical conditions, anxiety and depression are common in patients with UC. The unpredictability of UC and the need to take medications on a daily basis can lead to feelings of frustration or anger. Though occasional feelings of frustration can be normal, feelings of significant anxiety or depression should be brought to the attention of your physician. There are many support opportunities available for those having trouble coping with UC (see the final section).

  • What is the clinical course of UC?

    UC can present in a variety of ways. UC is often a chronic, life-long condition. It most often is diagnosed in the 2nd and 3rd decades of life (ages 11 to 30), although it can be diagnosed at any age. The initial presentation can be mild and is sometimes confused with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or it can be very severe and require hospitalization and surgery.

    For most patients, UC tends to follow a course marked by periods of disease activity followed by variable periods during which a patient is symptom free. Some patients may have continuous disease activity. Rarely, a patient will have only a single disease flare.

    In general, those people with a severe first attack of UC and those who have their entire colon affected by UC tend to have a more aggressive course with more frequent flares and shorter periods of remission. Despite the chronic nature of UC, most patients are able to function well and the life expectancy of a patient with UC is normal.

  • How is UC treated?

    Medical treatment of UC generally focuses on two separate goals:

    • the induction of remission (making a sick person well), and
    • the maintenance of remission (preventing relapse).

    Surgery is also a treatment option for UC and will be discussed separately. Medication choices can be grouped into four general categories:

    • aminosalicylates,
    • steroids,
    • immunomodulators, and
    • biologics.

    Aminosalicylates are a group of anti-inflammatory medications (sulfasalazine, mesalamine, olsalazine, and balsalazide) used for both the induction and maintenance of remission in mild to moderate UC. These medications are available in both oral formulations and rectal preparations (suppositories and enemas) and work on the lining of the colon to decrease inflammation. They are generally well tolerated. The most common side effects include nausea and rash. Rectal formulations of mesalamine (enemas and suppositories) are generally used for those patients with disease at the end of their colon.

    Steroids (prednisone) are an effective medication for the induction of remission in moderate to severe UC and are available in oral, rectal, and intravenous (IV) forms. Steroids are absorbed into the bloodstream and have a number of severe side effects that make them unsuitable for chronic use to maintain remission. These side effects include cataracts, osteoporosis, mood effects, an increased susceptibility to infection, high blood pressure, weight gain, and an underactive adrenal gland.

    Immunomodulators include medications such as 6-mercaptopurine and azathioprine. These are taken in pill form and absorbed into the bloodstream. They are effective for maintenance of remission in moderate to severe UC but are slow to work and can take up to two to three months to reach their peak effect. Because of this, these medications are often combined with other medications (such as steroids) in patients who are very ill. These medications require frequent blood work as they can cause liver test abnormalities and low white blood cell counts, both of which are reversible when the medication is stopped. Adverse reactions can include nausea, rash, liver and bone marrow toxicity, pancreatitis, and, rarely, lymphoma.

    Biologic agents are medications given by infusion or injection that are used to treat moderate to severe UC. There are two classes of biological therapies that treat UC.

    • First is the class of anti-TNF therapies. These antibodies target an inflammatory protein called “TNF” and have been shown to be effective for induction and maintenance of remission of UC. These include infliximab (Remicade®, Inflectra® and Renflexis®), adalimumab (Humira®) and golimumab (Simponi®). The side effects of these medicines may include an allergic reaction to the medication called a "hypersensitivity reaction." There are also rare risks of serious infections with these medications. Lymphoma is a rare risk of these therapies as well, but more recent scientific studies suggest that this may not be directly related to these medications, but instead primarily related to the thiopurine immune suppressants (see above.)
    • The second class of biological therapy that treats UC is a medication that blocks the body’s ability to send white blood cells (part of your immune system) to the bowel and cause inflammation. There is currently one therapy that is in this class (vedolizumab (Entyvio®), and it has been shown to induce and maintain remission of UC.

    Tofacitinib is a more recently available oral medication (not a biological therapy) that also can induce and maintain remission of UC. Tofacitinib (Xeljanz®) works by blocking an enzyme that is responsible for turning on inflammation. This treatment can work quickly but may increase your cholesterol level or increase the risk of developing shingles infection (related to chicken pox). This risk can be minimized by having a vaccination for the shingles virus (varicella zoster).

    As with all medications, you should discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.

    Other medications used less frequently for UC include cyclosporine and tacrolimus. These agents are sometimes used in those rare cases of severe UC that are not responsive to steroids. Side effects of these agents include infections and kidney problems. These agents are offered at a limited number of hospitals and are usually used for a short period of time as a bridge to other maintenance therapies such as azathioprine, 6-mercaptopurine or vedolizumab.

    Taking Medication for UC as Prescribed: No matter which medical therapy you and your doctor decide upon, adherence with the prescribed course is essential. No medical therapy can work if it is not taken, and failure to take your medications can lead to unnecessary escalation of therapy if it is not brought to the attention of your doctor. Because many of the complications associated with UC are related to ongoing disease activity, good medication adherence may minimize these risks.

  • What is the role of surgery?

    Surgery in UC is performed for a number of reasons and is generally considered to be curative if the entire large intestine is removed. Patients who do not respond to medications, are concerned about or have unacceptable side effects from medications, develop toxic megacolon, dysplasia (precancerous lesions) or cancer, or children who are not growing because of UC are often considered for surgery.

    Several different surgeries are performed for UC and the choice of surgery is dependent on patient preference and the experience of the surgeon. The most common surgery is total proctocolectomy with ileal pouch anal anastomosis (total removal of the colon and rectum with creation of a pseudo-rectum from a portion of the small intestine). This is also sometimes called a “J pouch.” This operation usually requires two separate surgeries to complete although it may require three stages in severely ill patients.

    Following this surgery, patients can expect five to ten stools daily as they no longer have a colon to store stool. Patients usually feel better because their sense of stool urgency improves, they no longer have bleeding, and their medications can often be stopped. However, these patients are at risk for post-operative inflammation of the pouch known as pouchitis which is usually treated with antibiotics. Women who have this surgery may have decreased ability to get pregnant naturally.

    Another common surgical procedure involves a proctocolectomy with ileostomy (removal of the entire colon and rectum and connection of the small intestine to the abdominal wall so that stool empties into a bag). This procedure is often undertaken in elderly patients, obese patients, or those with anal dysfunction. Should you need a surgical procedure for UC, your surgeon can help you decide which type of surgery best fits your needs.

  • Do complementary and alternative therapies work in UC?

    Outside of the standard medical therapies discussed for UC, many alternative therapies have been studied. No studies have suggested that diet can either cause or treat UC and there is no specific diet that patients with UC should follow though it is advisable to eat a balanced diet. Likewise, there is no convincing evidence that UC results from food allergies. Though vitamin and mineral deficiencies are more common in Crohn's disease, specific deficiencies can occur in UC patients. For this reason, a multivitamin and a calcium supplement are not unreasonable.

    Probiotics are species of bacteria that are proposed to have beneficial properties for the bowel. There are a number of scientific studies which have been performed to assess the role of probiotics in UC, and most of these have not shown benefit and therefore this is not usually recommended in UC.

    Various other herbal remedies and alternative therapies have been studied for use in patients with IBD such as curcumin (a derivative of the herb turmeric) and parasitic worms (helminths). Though limited studies have shown promise for a number of alternative therapies, these have not yet been shown to be safe and effective and are not currently recommended.

  • What type of follow-up is required?

    UC is a chronic disease and establishing a long-term relationship with a gastroenterologist experienced in the treatment of UC is advisable. Many medications used in UC require regular blood work to ensure that they are not causing any serious side effects. Patients with UC have a higher risk of osteoporosis associated with both underlying disease activity and long term or frequent steroid use. Because of this risk, your doctor may recommend measurement of Vitamin D blood levels and a bone mineral density screening with a DEXA scan. Colorectal cancer screening is also important because of the higher risk of cancer in patients with UC as discussed earlier.

  • Where can you get more information?

    Many organizations provide support and information for patients with UC. The ACG Web site has additional information. The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation has extensive patient information along with links to various different social, financial, and medical support groups. Other sources of information include the individual drug company Web sites, and, most importantly, your personal physician.

Authors

Crohn's Disease:
Reviewed by Gary R. Lichtenstein, MD, FACG, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, and David T. Rubin, MD, FACG, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL – June 2019.
Joseph Feuerstein, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess, Boston, MA – Updated April 2021.
Justin A. Crocker, MD, FACG, Duke GI of Raleigh, Raleigh, NC – Updated April 2024.

Ulcerative Colitis:
Richard S. Bloomfeld, MD, FACG, and Sean P. Lynch, MD, Wake Forest University School of Medicine – Published May 2010.
Richard S. Bloomfeld, MD, FACG, Wake Forest University School of Medicine – Updated February 2016.
David T. Rubin, MD, FACG, University of Chicago – Updated June 2019.

IBD FAQs

  • What is the difference between ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease?

    Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are two types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The large intestine (colon) is inflamed in ulcerative colitis, and this involves the inner lining of the colon. In Crohn's disease the inflammation extends deeper into the intestinal wall. Crohn's disease can affect any part of the bowel from the mouth to the anus.

  • How is Inflammatory Bowel Disease different from Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

    IBD develops due to inflammation in the intestine which can result in bleeding, fever, elevation of the white blood cell count, as well as diarrhea and cramping abdominal pain. The abnormalities in IBD can usually be visualized by cross-sectional imaging (for instance a CT scan) or colonoscopy. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a set of symptoms resulting from disordered sensation or abnormal function of the small and large bowel. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is characterized by diarrhea, crampy abdominal pain, and/or constipation, but is not accompanied by fever, bleeding or an elevated white blood cell count. Examination by colonoscopy or barium x-ray reveals no abnormal findings.

  • What is the cause of IBD?

    There is no single explanation for the development of IBD. A prevailing theory holds that a process, possibly viral, bacterial, or allergic, initially inflames the small or large intestine and, depending on genetic predisposition, results in the development of antibodies which chronically "attack" the intestine, leading to inflammation. Approximately 10 percent of patients with IBD have a close family member (parent, sibling or child) with the disease, which lends support to a genetic predisposition in some patients.

  • Is IBD caused by stress?

    Emotional stress due to family, job or social pressures may result in worsening of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome but there is little evidence to suggest that stress is a major cause for ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. Although IBD is not caused by stress recent studies show that there may be a relationship between the two--stressful periods in life may lead to a flare of disease activity in persons with the underlying diagnosis of IBD.

  • How is IBD diagnosed?

    There is no single test that can make the diagnosis of IBD or completely rule out its existence reliably. Colonoscopy, cross-sectional imaging studies of the colon or the upper GI tract, along with newer blood tests that detect markers that are commonly associated with IBD, along with a patient's history and physical exam, can all be useful in helping your doctor establish a diagnosis of IBD.

  • What are the complications of IBD?

    Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease can lead to diarrhea, bleeding, anemia, weight loss, fevers, malnutrition and fistulae. IBD can also have extra-intestinal manifestations where areas other than your gastrointestinal system such as your skeletal system, your skin or your eyes may be involved.

  • What medical treatments are available for IBD?

    Various formulations of 5-ASA, a drug which has been used to treat IBD for over 50 years, are available as oral preparations, suppositories and enemas. These are often one of the first drugs used to treat IBD.

    Corticosteroid therapies, such as prednisone or hydrocortisone, are given when the 5-ASA products are insufficient to control inflammation. These drugs can be given orally, rectally as suppositories or enemas, or intravenously.
    Drugs which suppress the body's immune response in IBD (known as immunomodulators) are used. Azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP) are the two most commonly used immunomodulators for anti-immune therapy.

    Finally, a newer class of medications called "biologics" is used for patients with moderate to severe disease. Biologics include medications like infliximab (Remicade®), a medication given thru an IV infusion, and adalimumab (Humira®) and certolizumab pegol (Cimzia®), medications given via subcutaneous injection.
  • Are there complications from the medical treatments?

    Sulfasalazine, a 5-ASA product first used to treat IBD in the 1940s, may cause nausea, indigestion or headache in about 15 percent of patients and worsening diarrhea in about 4 percent of patients. The newer drugs have fewer side effects. Chronic corticosteroid therapy can lead to fluid retention and high blood pressure, some rounding of the face and softening of the bones similar to osteoporosis. These complications usually prompt attempts to discontinue corticosteroid treatment as soon as possible. The anti-immune drugs require periodic monitoring of the blood count since some patients will develop a low white blood cell count. These drugs, however, are usually well-tolerated in many patients. Biologics can alter a patient's ability to respond to any stressors to their immune system and in some patients may make it harder for their body to fight off infections.

  • Is diet management important for patients with IBD?

    Physicians prefer to maintain good nutrition for those diagnosed with IBD. If you are responding well to medical management you can often eat a reasonably unrestricted diet. A low-roughage diet is often suggested for those prone to diarrhea after meals. If you appear to be milk sensitive (lactose intolerant), you are advised to either avoid milk products or use milk to which the enzyme lactase has been added.

  • How successful is medical therapy?

    With early and proper treatment the majority of patients with IBD lead healthy and productive lives. Some patients may require surgery for treatment of complications of IBD such as an abscess, bowel obstruction or inadequate response to treatment.

  • What are surgical options for IBD?

    Crohn's disease of the small or large intestine can be treated surgically for complications such as obstruction, abscess, fistula or failure to respond adequately to treatment. The disease may recur at some time after the operation.

    Ulcerative colitis is curable with removal of the entire colon. This may require creating an "ileostomy" (with attachment of the ileum to the external abdominal wall with an external application pouch) or may involve the direct attachment of the small intestine (ileum) to the anus. This type of surgery, known as "IPAA surgery," does not require an external application pouch

IBD Podcasts and Videos

ACG experts answer questions on topics of most concern to IBD patients, their caregivers and loved ones. With an emphasis on helping patients live well despite their IBD, the podcasts address reproduction and fertility; diet and nutrition; new and emerging therapies; the importance of clinical trials; and pediatric IBD.

Diet, Nutrition, and IBD - Sunanda V. Kane, MD, MSPH, FACG

Fertility and Reproduction - Sunanda V. Kane, MD, MSPH, FACG

New and Emerging Therapies - William J. Sandborn, MD, FACG

Pediatric IBD - Marla C. Dubinsky, MD

The Importance of Clinical Trials - William J. Sandborn, MD, FACG

Ulcerative Colitis - Stephen B. Hanauer, MD, MACG

GastroGirl Podcast with Jacqueline Gaulin

  • IBD/IBS Overlap: What Patients Need to Know