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Why Ulcerative Colitis is a “Chronic Condition”

Learn what the phrase “chronic condition” means when it refers to the diagnosis and treatment of IBD.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

In medical terminology, chronic means “lasting a long time.” But the meaning of “lasting a long time” can have different meanings depending on the condition that you are referring to. For example:

  • Chronic migraine refers to having 15 or more migraines a month for three months or longer.
  • Chronic Hepatitis C refers to a liver infection from the hepatitis c virus, an infection that can be cured but will not go away on its own without treatment.
  • Chronic kidney disease is a condition where the kidneys stop working. There is no cure and treatment focuses on slowing the progression.

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is considered a chronic condition because it is a lifelong illness—there is no cure and it requires ongoing treatment and management.

Here, we take a closer look at ulcerative colitis and what its status as a chronic condition means for people living with UC.

Ulcerative colitis is a form of IBD
Along with Crohn’s disease, UC is one of the two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Both conditions can cause a number of painful and uncomfortable symptoms—abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, bloody stools, fatigue, and weight loss. Both conditions can also result in a number of complications, including permanent damage to sections of the GI tract.

While UC and Crohn’s disease are both IBD—and both chronic conditions—they are different conditions that require different approaches to treatment. Here’s a brief look at some of the similarities and differences between the two:

  • Both conditions occur as result of abnormal immune system activity that causes inflammation and ulcers in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
  • Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract and can affect different parts of the GI tract, with gaps of unaffected tissue between the parts that are inflamed.
  • UC primarily affects the lower GI tract (the colon and rectum). Inflammation is usually continuous, without any gaps between.
  • Crohn’s disease can cause inflammation that spreads through multiple layers of tissue, while UC only causes inflammation in the innermost layers.
  • While there are important differences between the two conditions, symptoms can overlap—it is very important to work with experienced healthcare providers who can establish an accurate diagnosis.

Healthcare researchers have not identified the exact cause of UC or Crohn’s disease but believe the causes to be a combination of environmental triggers and genetic factors.

Relapse and remission
As mentioned above, UC and Crohn’s disease are categorized as chronic conditions because they are lifelong conditions with no cure. But while there is no cure, these conditions can go into remission. Remission refers to a period of time when symptoms go away. Achieving remission is a major goal of treating UC and Crohn’s disease.

However, achieving remission does not mean a condition is cured. Even if UC has been in remission for years, symptoms can return. This is called a relapse or flare. Relapses can be caused by a variety of triggers, including stress, taking certain medications, or stopping treatment. Changes to diet and eating certain foods can also trigger a relapse, and people with UC are encouraged to keep a food journal—even when symptoms are in remission.

Individualized treatment
Treatment for UC looks a little different for everyone. People with UC experience different symptoms, respond to different types of medications, and have different triggers. The most important steps you can take toward achieving and maintaining remission are working with healthcare providers who have experience treating IBD and staying consistent with your treatment plan.

Medically reviewed in July 2021.

Sources:
Stephanie Bernell and Steven W. Howard. "Use Your Words Carefully: What Is a Chronic Disease?" Frontiers in Public Health, 2016. Vol. 4.
American Migraine Foundation. "Chronic Migraine."
Cleveland Clinic. "Chronic Migraine."
NCI Dictionary. "Chronic disease."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public."
National Institute of Diabetes and Digesting and Kidney Diseases. "What Is Chronic Kidney Disease?"
University of Michigan Health. "Frequently Asked Questions About Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?"
Mayo Clinic. "Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)."
Temple Health. "Crohn's Disease vs. Ulcerative Colitis."
MedlinePlus. "Autoimmune Diseases."
Cleveland Clinic. "Ulcerative Colitis."
Charlotte Lillis. "Ulcerative colitis remission: What to know." MedicalNewsToday. October 15, 2018.
MedicineNet. "Medical Definition of Remission."
MedicineNet. "Medical Definition of Relapse."
Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. "The Facts About Inflammatory Bowel Disease."
Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. "Ulcerative Colitis Treatment Options."

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