There are headaches and there are migraines. There is the common cold and there is the flu. Some people suffer from frequent stomach discomfort, and other people have ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease. Ulcerative colitis can present itself in a variety of ways, but many people experience stomach cramps and diarrhea, among other symptoms. Since these symptoms are relatively common, it can be extremely difficult to ascertain whether a person has ulcerative colitis or a different problem. What factors help to determine if a person has ulcerative colitis?

Why so hard to tell?

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis include stomach pain and diarrhea. It is easy for a person to assume that they have simply eaten something that their stomach does not agree with. There are a wide variety of other medical reasons that a person could have symptoms of ulcerative colitis. Often, doctors try to explore other options before diagnosing a patient with ulcerative colitis. To give a definitive diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, a doctor must perform a colonoscopy and test a sample of the stool and blood. Some doctors use x-rays, CT scans, and other forms of imaging to detect the disease.

The terminology surrounding ulcerative colitis can also be confusing for people outside of the medical field. Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, not to be confused with inflammatory bowel syndrome. Chron’s disease is also another type of inflammatory bowel disease. All of these diseases have similar symptoms but very different causes. A third factor that makes ulcerative colitis hard to detect is the fact that the symptoms do not always last long. People who suffer from ulcerative colitis can go through long periods of time where they do not experience symptoms. For some, years can pass between times when their symptoms flare up. In these circumstances, it can be easy to assume that the symptoms are attributable to reasons other than ulcerative colitis.

What are the key differences?

Key symptoms of ulcerative colitis are stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, and constipation. Some people with ulcerative colitis have strong urges to make bowel movements, but they are physically incapable of doing so because of the inflammation their digestive system is experiencing. Others with ulcerative colitis suffer from a form of incontinence. Despite its similarity to other diseases, there are a few telling signs that separate ulcerative colitis from other illnesses. With ulcerative colitis, diarrhea is bloody, which is uncommon in other diseases.

All of the symptoms of ulcerative colitis can occur for other reasons, but ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease. While there might be long stretches of time between experiencing symptoms, the chronic inflammation caused by ulcerative colitis will always present problems again. Since this is a chronic disease, diet changes, or taking medicines, like Pepto Bismol, are unlikely to quell ulcerative colitis symptoms over the long term. In severe cases, ulcerative colitis can also cause joint pain because of inflammation outside of the digestive tract. Chronic stomach symptoms along with joint pain are a telling sign of ulcerative colitis.

What if you have ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis must be diagnosed by a doctor. Doctors have to visualize the colon with a colonoscopy and confirm the diagnosis by testing the blood and stool. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, treatment can start. Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease, and there is no known cause or cure for the disease. Treatment for ulcerative colitis focuses on managing the symptoms so that a sufferer can have as normal of a life as possible. Antibiotics and NSAIDs are commonly used to treat the inflammation that is the underlying cause of the disease. If ulcerative colitis is diagnosed, treatment is a necessity. Untreated ulcerative colitis can lead to serious complications and even death because chronic inflammation can lead to systemic infections.