What is colitis?

Colitis, which commonly includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, is an inflammatory colorectal disease. It is characterised by painful swelling and inflammation within the digestive tract, which is thought to be caused by an abnormal immune response.1

Persistent attacks of colitis can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

Signs and symptoms of colitis

Signs and symptoms of colitis can vary between people and change over time, as the inflammation tends to worsen and then ease.

Symptoms of colitis include:1

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Mucus discharge during bowel movement
  • Pain and discomfort, including abdominal cramps
  • Frequent urge to defecate
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss

If the inflammation increases and spreads throughout the colon, a life-threatening complication known as toxic megacolon may occur. This condition involves rapid dilation of the colon, which can cause severe abdominal distention, sepsis and peritonitis due to perforation and requires immediate surgery.


Diagnosis of colitis involves a number of tests, as it can be confused with a number of other common conditions. You may undergo a colonoscopy to identify any ulcers, inflammation or bleeding within the colon, or a biopsy which can provide evidence of disease.


Treatment for colitis can vary depending on the intensity of the inflammation and the cause. Many cases require little more than symptomatic care, including fluid replacement, resting the bowel and medications to control pain.

For mild cases, treatment using anti-inflammatory medications can assist in controlling symptoms.

Colitis that does not respond to medication requires surgical treatment – often a proctocolectomy (where the colon and rectum is resected).


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. healthdirect. (2018). Ulcerative colitis. Retrieved on 18 November 2019 from

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