Introduction 

Diverticular disease and diverticulitis are related digestive conditions that affect the large intestine (colon).

In diverticular disease, small bulges or pockets (diverticula) develop in the lining of the intestine. Diverticulitis is when these pockets become inflamed or infected.

Symptoms of diverticular disease include:

  • lower abdominal pain
  • feeling bloated

The majority of people with diverticula will not have any symptoms; this is known as diverticulosis.

Symptoms of diverticulitis tend to be more serious and include:

  • more severe abdominal pain, especially on the left side
  • high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • diarrhoea or frequent bowel movements

Read more about the symptoms of diverticular disease and diverticulitis.

Diverticulosis, diverticular disease and diverticulitis

Diverticula

"Diverticula" is the medical term used to describe the small bulges that stick out of the side of the large intestine (colon).

Diverticula are common and associated with ageing. The large intestine becomes weaker with age, and the pressure of hard stools passing through the large intestine is thought to cause the bulges to form.

Read more about the causes of diverticula.

It's estimated that 5% of people have diverticula by the time they are 40 years old, and at least 50% of people have them by the time they are 80 years old.

Diverticular disease

One in four people who develop diverticula will experience symptoms, such as abdominal pain.

Having symptoms associated with diverticula is known as diverticular disease.

Diverticulitis

Diverticulitis describes infection that occurs when bacteria becomes trapped inside one of the bulges, triggering more severe symptoms.

Diverticulitis can lead to complications, such as an abscess next to the intestine.

Read more about the complications of diverticulitis.

Treating diverticular disease and diverticulitis

A high-fibre diet can often ease symptoms of diverticular disease, and paracetamol can be used to relieve pain – other painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen are not recommended for regular use, as they can cause stomach upsets. Speak to your GP if paracetamol alone is not working.

Mild diverticulitis can usually be treated at home with antibiotics prescribed by your GP. More serious cases may need hospital treatment to prevent and treat complications.

Surgery to remove the affected section of the intestine is sometimes recommended if there have been serious complications, although this is rare.

Read more about treating diverticular disease and diverticulitis.

Who is affected

Diverticular disease is one of the most common digestive conditions.

There were 113,983 hospital admissions due to diverticulitis in England in 2012-13.

Both sexes are equally affected by diverticular disease and diverticulitis, although the condition is more likely to appear at a younger age (under 50) in men than in women. Overall, symptoms of diverticulitis are most likely to occur in people over 70 years old.

Diverticular disease is often described as a "Western disease" because the rates are high in European and North American countries, and low in African and Asian countries.

A combination of genetics and diet is thought to be the reason for this and the fact that people in Western countries tend to eat less fibre.

People aged 50-70 who eat a high-fibre diet (25g a day) have a 40% lower chance of admission to hospital with complications of diverticular disease – compared to others in their age range with the lowest amount of dietary fibre.

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Fibre

Most people with diverticular disease are recommended to eat between 18g (0.6oz) and 30g (1oz) of fibre a day. Your GP can provide a more specific target, based on your individual height and weight.

Good sources of fibre include

  • fresh fruit – such as pears, apples and oranges
  • dried fruit – such as apricots and prunes
  • vegetables – such as broccoli and peas
  • legumes – such as baked beans, kidney beans and black beans
  • nuts – such as almonds and peanuts
  • breakfast cereals – such as high-fibre breakfast flakes
  • starchy foods – such as brown bread, rice and pasta

It's recommended that you gradually increase your fibre intake over the course of a few weeks. This will help prevent side effects associated with a high-fibre diet, such as bloating and flatulence (wind).

Drink plenty of fluids, because this will help prevent side effects.

Fibre supplements – usually in the form of sachets of powder that you mix with water – are also available from pharmacists and health food shops.

Read more about how a high-fibre diet can help prevent diverticular disease and why fibre is important to health.

Eat right for your digestion

How to eat and drink to ensure a good digestion, including foods to avoid and which ones to fill up on.

Page last reviewed: 29/09/2014

Next review due: 29/09/2016