Treatments and drugs

The goal of medical treatment is to reduce the inflammation that triggers your signs and symptoms. In the best cases, this may lead not only to symptom relief but also to long-term remission. Ulcerative colitis treatment usually involves either drug therapy or surgery.

Doctors use several categories of drugs that control inflammation in different ways. But drugs that work well for some people may not work for others, so it may take time to find a medication that helps you. In addition, because some drugs have serious side effects, you'll need to weigh the benefits and risks of any treatment.

Anti-inflammatory drugs
Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first step in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. They include:

  • Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine). Sulfasalazine can be effective in reducing symptoms of ulcerative colitis, but it has a number of side effects, including nausea, vomiting, heartburn and headache. Don't take this medication if you're allergic to sulfa medications.
  • Mesalamine (Asacol, Rowasa) and olsalazine (Dipentum). These medications tend to have fewer side effects than sulfasalazine has. You take them in tablet form or use them rectally in the form of enemas or suppositories, depending on the area of your colon affected by ulcerative colitis. Mesalamine enemas can relieve signs and symptoms in more than 80 percent of people with ulcerative colitis in the lower left side of their colon and rectum. Olsalazine may cause or worsen existing diarrhea in some people.
  • Balsalazide (Colazal). This is another formulation of mesalamine. Colazal delivers anti-inflammatory medication directly to the colon. The drug is similar to sulfasalazine, but uses a less toxic carrier and may produce fewer side effects.
  • Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids can help reduce inflammation, but they have numerous side effects, including a puffy face, excessive facial hair, night sweats, insomnia and hyperactivity. More serious side effects include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, bone fractures, cataracts and an increased susceptibility to infections. Long-term use of these drugs in children can lead to stunted growth.

    Also, corticosteroids don't work for everyone who has ulcerative colitis. Doctors generally use corticosteroids only if you have moderate to severe inflammatory bowel disease that doesn't respond to other treatments. Corticosteroids aren't for long-term use and are generally prescribed for a period of three to four months.

    They may also be used in conjunction with other medications as a means to induce remission. For example, corticosteroids may be used with an immune system suppressor — the corticosteroids can induce remission, while the immune system suppressors can help maintain remission. Occasionally, your doctor may also prescribe steroid enemas to treat disease in your lower colon or rectum. These, too, are only for short-term use.

Immune system suppressors
These drugs also reduce inflammation, but they target your immune system rather than treating inflammation itself. Because immune suppressors can be effective in treating ulcerative colitis, scientists theorize that damage to digestive tissues is caused by your body's immune response to an invading virus or bacterium or even to your own tissue. By suppressing this response, inflammation is also reduced. Immunosuppressant drugs include:

  • Azathioprine (Imuran) and mercaptopurine (Purinethol). These drugs have been used to treat Crohn's disease for years, but their role in ulcerative colitis is only now being studied. Because azathioprine and mercaptopurine act slowly, they're sometimes initially combined with a corticosteroid, but in time, they seem to produce benefits on their own, with less long-term toxicity.

    Side effects can include allergic reactions, bone marrow suppression, infections, and inflammation of the liver and pancreas. If you're taking either of these medications, you'll need to follow up closely with your doctor and have your blood checked regularly to look for side effects.

  • Cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune). This potent drug is normally reserved for people who don't respond well to other medications or who face surgery because of severe ulcerative colitis. In some cases, cyclosporine may be used to delay surgery until you're strong enough to undergo the procedure; in others, it's used to control signs and symptoms until less toxic drugs start working. Cyclosporine begins working in one to two weeks, but because it has the potential for severe side effects, including kidney and liver damage, fatal infections and an increased risk of lymphoma, you and your doctor will want to talk about the risks and benefits of treatment.
  • Infliximab (Remicade). This drug is specifically for adults and children with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis who don't respond to or can't tolerate other treatments. It works by neutralizing a protein produced by your immune system known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Infliximab finds TNF in your bloodstream and removes it before it causes inflammation in your intestinal tract and contributes to the formation of infected sores called fistulas.

    Some people with heart failure, people with multiple sclerosis, and people with cancer or a history of cancer can't take Remicade. If you're currently taking Remicade, talk to your doctor about the potential risks. The drug has been linked to an increased risk of infection, especially tuberculosis, and may increase your risk of blood problems and cancer. You'll need to have a skin test for tuberculosis before taking infliximab and a chest X-ray if you lived or traveled extensively where tuberculosis has been found.

    Also, because Remicade contains mouse protein, it can cause serious allergic reactions in some people — reactions that may be delayed for days to weeks after starting treatment. Once started, infliximab is often continued as long-term therapy, although its effectiveness may wear off over time.

Nicotine patches
These skin patches — the same kind smokers use — seem to provide short-term relief from flare-ups of ulcerative colitis for some people, especially people who formerly smoked. How nicotine patches work isn't exactly clear, and the evidence that they provide relief is contested among researchers. Talk to your doctor before trying this treatment.

Don't take up smoking as a treatment for ulcerative colitis. The risks from smoking far outweigh any potential benefit.

Other medications
In addition to controlling inflammation, some medications may help relieve your signs and symptoms. Depending on the severity of your ulcerative colitis, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following:

  • Anti-diarrheals. A fiber supplement such as psyllium powder (Metamucil) or methylcellulose (Citrucel) can help relieve signs and symptoms of mild to moderate diarrhea by adding bulk to your stool. For more severe diarrhea, loperamide (Imodium) may be effective. Use anti-diarrheal medications with great caution, however, because they increase the risk of toxic megacolon.
  • Laxatives. In some cases, swelling may cause your intestines to narrow, leading to constipation. Talk to your doctor before taking any laxatives, because even those sold over-the-counter may be too harsh for your system.
  • Pain relievers. For mild pain, your doctor may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Don't use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or naproxen (Aleve). These are likely to make your symptoms worse.
  • Iron supplements. If you have chronic intestinal bleeding, you may develop iron deficiency anemia. Taking iron supplements may help restore your iron levels to normal and reduce this type of anemia once your bleeding has stopped or diminished.

If diet and lifestyle changes, drug therapy or other treatments don't relieve your signs and symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Surgery can often eliminate ulcerative colitis. But that usually means removing your entire colon and rectum (proctocolectomy). In the past, after this surgery you would wear a small bag over an opening in your abdomen (ileostomy) to collect stool. But a procedure called ileoanal anastomosis eliminates the need to wear a bag. Instead, your surgeon constructs a pouch from the end of your small intestine. The pouch is then attached directly to your anus. This allows you to expel waste more normally, although you may have as many as five to seven soft or watery bowel movements a day because you no longer have your colon to absorb water.

If you have surgery, your doctor may discuss whether an ileostomy or an ileoanal pouch is right for you. Between 25 percent and 40 percent of people with ulcerative colitis eventually need surgery.

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