10 Terms to Help You Understand Ulcerative Colitis

UC. IBD. Even the monikers sound like jargon. So we asked a gastroenterologist for the key phrases you need to know to live well with ulcerative colitis. Don’t worry: no quiz later.

A health diagnosis is scary enough—who needs the added stress of trying to decode all the mumbo-jumbo? Here, Gina Lin, M.D., a gastroenterologist (GI doctor) at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clarita, Calif., explains—in a way that doesn’t require a medical degree yourself—the top UC-related definitions, so you can get the most out of your treatment.

Man with stomach pain
iStock

Ulcerative Colitis

Let’s start with the most obvious: What exactly is UC, anyway?

UC is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease in which the large intestine becomes inflamed, Dr. Lin explains. Symptoms vary depending on the precise location of inflammation and how severe it is. You may experience diarrhea, bloody stool, mucus discharge, abdominal pain, urgency to defecate, fever, and/or weight loss.

Sounds... delightful, we know, but it can usually be controlled quite well with medications, and long-term remission is possible.

Woman with her hands over her gut
iStock

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

If you’ve just been diagnosed with UC, you may have heard “inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)” and UC thrown around interchangeably. So what’s the difference?

IBD is a group of conditions that cause chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. UC is a type of IBD. In fact, the two most common types of IBD are UC and Crohn's disease, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. In essence, if you have UC, you have IBD. You’ll hear these acronyms a lot.

Woman with stomach pain
iStock

Ulcers

Ulcers are so common in UC, they’re part of its name. They are open sores that can occur on the surface of the large intestine when it becomes inflamed. These ulcers, unfortunately, are also part of the reason why UC can cause so much pain.

Woman stepping on a scale
iStock

Pancolitis

Pancolitis is essentially a really severe version of UC, with extreme symptoms from bloody stool to weight loss. It’s when the inflammation involves the entire colon, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Doctor talking to a patient
iStock

Stenosis

Chronic inflammation can sometimes cause scarring of the bowel wall—that’s what stenosis is. Another word for stenosis is “stricture”—your doctor may use both terms interchangeably.

If you have a stricture, you may need surgery to fix it, which is called a strictureplasty.

Dysplasia

When an abnormal type of cells is detected in the lining of the intestine, it’s called dysplasia. Dysplasia may lead to cancer: People with UC have a higher risk of colorectal cancer than the general population. “This risk is related to the duration of the disease and how much of the colon is affected,” says Dr. Lin. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, the risk increases after you’ve had UC symptoms for eight to 10 years. More frequent surveillance (colonoscopies)—starting eight years after your initial diagnosis—are usually recommended for anyone with UC to monitor for Dysplasia.

Fecal sample collection container
iStock

Occult Blood

It sounds like something from a True Blood rerun, but nothing mystical here. In medicine, “occult blood” simply refers to invisible blood in the stool, blood that can’t be seen by the naked eye. This test may be used as part of your UC diagnosis or to check on your disease progress.

Man talking to his doctor
iStock

Ulcerative Proctitis

If your inflammation is localized to the rectum (the area closest to the anus), you have a form of UC called ulcerative proctitis.

Woman pulling a roll of toilet paper
iStock

Tenesmus

That urge to poop right after you just went: There’s a word for that.

“Tenesmus is a UC symptom in which one feels the need to have a bowel movement, even if you already had one,” Dr. Lin says. It’s a common symptom in people who have proctitis.

Patient in surgery
iStock

Bowel Obstruction

Unfortunately common, this IBD complication occurs when part of your bowel narrows or thickens and blocks the movement of digestive contents through the intestines, according to the National Institutes of Health. Translation? You can’t poop.

There are several ways this can be treated, but usually it requires a trip to the hospital. There, according to the Mayo Clinic, if you have a partial obstruction, you’ll likely have an enema (when air or gas is injected into your rectum to help empty your bowels); if the situation is worse, it may require surgery.

Sheila M. Eldred
Meet Our Writer
Sheila M. Eldred

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from life-threatening diseases to elite athletes. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News, and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking in Minneapolis.