What Is Colitis?

Colitis Is Not A Disease In And Of Itself, But Rather A Sign Of Disease

Colitis is the medical term that is used to talk about inflammation in the colon (the large intestine). It's not a disease by itself, but is rather the sign of a disease. BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

"Colitis" has come to be a confusing term. The reason for this is that many people refer to certain diseases and conditions as simply "colitis," when in fact, colitis is a sign of disease, not a distinct disease on its own.

Blood in the stool is one indication that there might be inflammation in the colon that is causing ulcers or bleeding. Blood in the stool is never normal, and should always be evaluated by a doctor, even if you think it may be due to hemorrhoids.

People who have been diagnosed with colitis in the past, from any cause, should see a doctor right away about symptoms such as diarrhea and bloody stools. If there is vomiting and severe abdominal pain along with the diarrhea and bloody stools, call a doctor right away for guidance, or go to the emergency department. 

What Is Colitis?

Simply put, colitis refers to any inflammation of the colon (large intestine). Many people refer to ulcerative colitis as just "colitis," but colitis is actually a sign of ulcerative colitis. Colitis can also be a sign of Crohn's disease, the other main form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), when the inflammation that disease causes is located in the large intestine.

Other conditions that include colitis in their name include ischemic colitiscollagenous colitis and lymphocytic colitis.

What Symptoms Does Colitis Cause?

Colitis is inflammation in the large intestine, which is a sign of disease, and not something that a patient can see or feel.

The symptoms that colitis can cause, which a patient can feel, include diarrhea and abdominal pain. Some types of colitis may also cause blood and mucus in the stool, constipationgas, fever, and urgent need to move the bowels.

What Diseases Can Cause Colitis?

Causes of colitis include allergic reactions, IBD, pseudomembranous colitis (infection with Clostridium difficile), bacterial overgrowth and infection, ischemia (loss of blood flow), viruses, parasitic infections, and radiation therapy.

How Will A Physician Diagnose Colitis?

A patient might go to the doctor because of diarrhea or other symptoms like blood or mucus in the stool. If there is inflammation in the colon, that won't be apparent to the physician until some initial tests are done, because the colitis is inside the body. So, the colitis itself needs to be found before a physician can begin to understand what might be causing it. There are several tests that a doctor might use to determine what is causing the colitis. Colitis is a sign of another underlying disorder, so the condition that is causing the inflammation needs to be found, so that it can be treated, and the colitis can be healed.

Some of the tests that might be done to determine the cause of colitis include:

How Is Colitis Treated?

The treatment of colitis will depend greatly on its cause. For chronic conditions like IBD, treatment is ongoing, and will involve medications and sometimes surgery. For bacterial and parasitic infections, treatment might include antibiotic therapy to kill the bacteria causing the colitis. When there is dehydration from diarrhea, getting fluids and electrolytes via mouth or IV will be necessary.

The Bottom Line

Many people refer to ulcerative colitis as just "colitis," but that's not really correct. Colitis can be caused by a variety of diseases and conditions, and it's not always a chronic problem. Some causes of colitis, especially infectious ones caused by parasites or bacteria, can be treated and might never occur again. Symptoms of abdominal pain and blood in the stool should always be checked out right away by a doctor.

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