10 Things Women With Ulcerative Colitis Need to Knowby Jackie Zimmerman Patient Advocate
It’s not fair, but it’s true: Chronic illnesses can affect you differently based on your gender. And that includes ulcerative colitis (UC), a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the large intestine and the rectum.
Women who are living with UC often experience this disease differently from their male counterparts due to the short distance between the digestive and reproductive systems. So we asked Jason Schairer, M.D., the senior staff physician at the Henry Ford Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center in Detroit, Michigan, to share some key things you need to know as a woman with UC.
UC Can Make You Feel ‘Blah’
Sick and tired of being sick and tired? You’re not alone. Women with UC often find the condition takes a toll on their zest for life.
“While most women do extraordinarily well on a daily basis, night-time symptoms, medication side effects, and other autoimmune conditions can affect her energy level, mood, and motivation,” Dr, Schairer explains.
Get tips for how to deal with the fatigue that comes with UC.
UC Won’t Make You Infertile
If you’re diagnosed with UC, one of the first questions you may have for your doctor is about whether you can still have kids.
There’s good news here: “From a doctor's perspective, UC should not significantly decrease the biologic ability to have children,” Dr. Schairer says.
...But Family Planning May Seem More Complicated With UC
UC can still make the idea of starting a family more daunting than usual.
According to Dr. Schairer, reasons why women with UC may fear having kids include:
- They may be fatigued, depressed, or in pain.
- They may worry that they can pass the disease onto their children (Remember: “Ninety-five percent of children born to UC mothers do not get UC,” he says.).
- They may worry that the medications are bad for baby (“You can safely have a child on most of the medications,” he says.).
If you’re worried about any of these issues, bringing them up to your doctor is key, Dr. Schairer says — in many cases, they can help you find solutions.
And Women With UC Are Indeed Having Fewer Children
“Many women who live with UC have [fewer] children for fear that the disease could be passed onto their children or that the medications are unsafe for pregnancy,” Dr Schairer says. “In each of these cases, it is important for the person living with the disease and the physician to be open and honest about the effects the disease and the medications are having, and then to set goals for what we can improve.”
Reading about the experiences of women who have gone through pregnancy and motherhood with IBD may help reassure you.
UC Can Affect Your Confidence
While many people simply think of digestive health issues when they think of UC, the disease can actually impact many aspects of a woman’s life, including her self-image, says Dr. Schairer.
“It can cause hair loss, being thin with low muscle mass, and potentially surgical scars,” he says. “The medications can cause weight gain, acne, and hair loss.”
And beyond body image issues, UC can lead to other insecurities, too. But you can overcome them — here’s how one woman did it.
UC Can Affect Your Sex Life
Sex can raise a lot of anxieties when you have UC.
“[Some women] may have pain with intercourse due to inflammation,” says Dr. Schairer. Additionally, the disease and medication side effects can make you feel nervous about engaging in sexual activity or make you feel insecure, he says.
If you find yourself feeling this way, talk to your doctor — and your partner. There may be medications or other treatments that can help relieve pain during sex. Sharing your feelings with your partner will help you feel closer — and a good partner will take the opportunity to reassure you.
Severe UC Could Affect Your Period
Most women with UC will not have issues with their period, Dr. Schairer says.
“Still, if a person is sick or malnourished, they may start skipping cycles or become irregular. This can be problematic for family planning,” he says. “Women with UC can also have heavy periods (menorrhagia) like anyone else, which can exacerbate an already low blood count (anemia).”
Anemia is a common complication of UC.
Talk to Your Doctor About Birth Control and UC
It’s always a good idea to discuss how your condition might affect your birth control. Luckily, women with UC typically can use any type of effective birth control safely. But if you’re at a higher risk of blood clots because of severe UC, certain methods with estrogen may be a bad idea.
So it’s imperative that you talk to your GI and your gynecologist about what type of birth control you’re on. Luckily, there is a plethora of birth control options available — the most effective being the implant and intrauterine device (IUD) — so talk with your doctors to create the right plan for you.
Moms With UC Need to Make Time for Self-care
One of the biggest challenges mothers face is balancing taking care of children and taking care of themselves — and being a mom with UC adds even more struggle to that balancing act. Establishing a network of other moms can help with the stress of maintaining good health, rearing healthy children, avoiding hospitalization, and not being present at home as a result, and the guilt of placing personal health at such a high priority.
You Deserve a Full Life With UC
As a physician treating women with UC, Dr. Schairer says his main goal is to help you live the life you deserve.
“The disease should not keep her from going to school and doing well. She should be able to choose any career regardless of the treatment she chooses. If she desires to engage in any sports, activities, raising a family — [she] should be able to do these fully,” he says.
The most rewarding part of treating people with UC? “Watching all of the amazing people triumph over this and live a fulfilling life.”
Knowledge Is Power
It’s hard to live with a chronic disease like UC, no matter your gender. But knowing that there may be certain issues you’ll face as a woman can help prepare you to tackle them head-on and start up productive discussions with your doctor.
“It seems from my perspective that women, men, and non-binary people share many of the same issues [with UC] both physically and emotionally,” Dr. Schairer says. “The disease varies from person to person, but I have seen people from all walks of life show an amazing strength and determination [in the face of UC.]”