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Alternate Names

  • inflammation of the colon
  • Digestive system


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

What is going on in the body?

Colitis causes the inside lining of the colon to become inflamed and irritated. This can lead to a number of symptoms, depending on the underlying cause and extent of the colitis.


What are the causes and risks of the condition?

The most common causes of colitis include:
  • infection, such as traveler's diarrhea or food poisoning
  • a change in the bacteria of the colon, which is often due to the use of antibiotics
  • damage to the colon from radiation therapy
  • inflammatory bowel disease (Chron's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis)
  • poor blood flow to the colon
  • side effects of medicines


What can be done to prevent the condition?

Colitis is not always preventable. To reduce the risk of infectious colitis, a person can:
  • avoid drinking from streams or lakes
  • drink bottled water when traveling to places where there may be poor sanitation


How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of colitis begins with a history and physical exam. A specimen of the person's stool may be examined under a microscope. The healthcare provider may order a barium enema. This is an X-ray test done after a contrast agent is injected into the bowel through the rectum.

The provider may also order a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. These procedures 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 completely around the bowel, a sigmoidoscopy a couple of feet


Long Term Effects

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 on its own when treated with medicine.
Poor blood flow to the colon may cause the tissue in the bowels to die. This condition, known as bowel infarction, can be life-threatening. Inflammatory bowel disease may cause permanent tissue changes in the bowel or even colon cancer.

Other Risks

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 medicine is discontinued.
Inflammatory bowel disease is treated with medicine to reduce inflammation and suppress the overactive immune system. When the condition is due to reduced blood flow, surgery may be necessary to correct the problem.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Medications used to treat colitis may cause stomach upset or allergic reactions. Medicines that suppress the immune system increase the risk of infection. Surgery can be complicated by infection, bleeding, or an allergic reaction to the anesthetic.

After Treatment

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 usually return to normal activities after treatment.


How is the condition monitored?

Those with inflammatory bowel disease and poor blood flow often need frequent visits to the healthcare provider. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.


Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.

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