Key Risk Factors for Ulcerative Colitis

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

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

You don’t need us to tell you that doing whatever you can to kick cigarettes out of your life is a good thing. However, if you smoke and have ulcerative colitis, you may experience worsening symptoms when you quit. This does mean that you should keep smoking! Instead, it’s a reminder to work closely with your doctor on your quit plan so you can get smoke-free and manage any potential flares.

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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.

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.