Key Risk Factors for Ulcerative Colitis

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
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Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an autoimmune disease that attacks the digestive tract and hinders your body’s ability to take in nutrients. While we don’t know exactly what causes UC, we do know some of the main risk factors for developing it — and knowing your risk factors can help you take control of your health and your future. While some risk factors for UC can’t be changed, some can. Here’s what you need to know.


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Genetics and UC: Your family history may contribute

Do you have a parent or grandparent with UC or another type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)? Research shows that the condition tends to run in families, suggesting that your genes may play a factor in whether you get UC. But if you have a relative with UC, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the disease, too—in fact, only 10-25 percent of people with UC also have a sibling or parent with IBD. If UC does run in your family, talk to your doctor — they can help you properly assess your risk.


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Does gender play a role in UC development?

Ulcerative colitis does not tend to choose sides in the battle of the sexes. Both men and women are at generally the same risk of developing the disease. However, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, most studies in North America show that more men than women have UC, and men are more likely than women to be diagnosed in their 50s and 60s.


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European descent and UC risk

UC tends to disproportionately affect people of European descent and people of Jewish heritage, according to the National Institutes of Health. On the other hand, people of African-American, Asian, and South American descent all have a lower risk of UC.


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The impact of socioeconomic class on UC

Research on whether socioeconomic class affects UC risk is inconclusive so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While some research finds that UC is more common in people with white-collar occupations, other research finds that UC is less prevalent in groups with higher income.


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Where you live may affect your UC risk

Developed countries and big cities tend to have more cases of UC, according to the CDC. While it is not clear why this is the case, it could be due to unknown environmental factors like increased pollution found in bigger cities. It might also be related to an increase in access to care in cities, which inflates the number of patients getting an accurate diagnosis of UC in the first place.


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Environmental risk factors for UC

Environmental factors may play a role in the development of UC. Depending on where you live, the environment can contain pollutants that trigger an autoimmune cascade leading to the development of conditions like UC.


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Smoking and UC risk

Smokers have lower than average rates of ulcerative colitis rates, but a higher rate of Crohn's disease.  Some patients with ulcerative colitis report developing the symptoms after they quit smoking.  For this reason, patients should ask their physician about nicotine replacement when they attempt to quit smoking.


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Birth control pills and UC

There is a small amount of evidence suggesting the use of birth control pills may increase your risk of getting IBD. However, this link has not been proven, according to the CDC. Talk to your doctor about which method of birth control may be best for you.


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Autoimmune reactions and UC risk

The immune system plays a role in the cure or development of the body’s diseases. In autoimmune disease, the immune system actually attacks the body instead of invaders like viruses or bacteria. Many believe this type of reaction is a related to UC in some people, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. If you already have an autoimmune disease, speak with your doctor about how it might increase your risk for developing another one


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Antibiotics

When antibiotics are used for a long period of time, especially in young people, it may increase the risk of developing UC, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Talk with your doctor about the safest way to use antibiotics, and don’t use them when unnecessary — like when you have the common cold or another virus.


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The bottom line

It is extremely important to know your risk factors for UC. The knowledge can help you take steps now with your doctor to develop the best plan to keep you healthy in the long run. And if you do develop UC, know it can be managed. While it’s certainly a learning curve, many people with UC effectively manage their condition. Read their advice here.