If you have ulcerative colitis, you could develop further problems.
Around 1 in 3 people with ulcerative colitis will also develop inflammation in other parts of their body. This can lead to a range of symptoms that doctors call extra-intestinal manifestations, or extra-intestinal symptoms.
- pain, swelling and stiffness of the joints – which usually happens in larger joints, such as the ankles, knees, hips and wrist
- tender bumps can appear on the skin – usually on the arms and legs
- painful mouth ulcers
- eyes can become red, irritated and itchy
People with ulcerative colitis are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, when the bones become weak and are more likely to fracture.
Osteoporosis can happen due to a number of factors, such as side effects of steroid medicines and the body having problems absorbing the nutrients it needs for bone growth.
It can also be caused by the dietary changes someone with the condition may take, such as avoiding dairy products, if they believe it could be triggering their symptoms.
If you're thought to be at risk of osteoporosis, the health of your bones will be regularly monitored.
You may also be advised to take medicine or supplements of vitamin D and calcium to strengthen your bones.
Poor growth and development
Ulcerative colitis, and some of the treatments for it, can affect growth and delay puberty.
Children and young people with ulcerative colitis should have their height and body weight measured regularly by healthcare professionals.
This should be checked against average measurements for their age.
If there are problems with your child's growth or development, they may be referred to a paediatrician (a specialist in treating children and young people).
Primary sclerosing cholangitis
Some people with ulcerative colitis may also develop another digestive condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). PSC is where the bile ducts become progressively inflamed and damaged.
Bile ducts are small tubes used to transport bile (digestive juice) out of the liver and into the digestive system.
PSC does not usually cause symptoms until it's at an advanced stage.
Symptoms can include:
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- itchy skin
- weight loss
- a high temperature
- yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
There's currently no specific treatment for PSC, although medicines can be used to relieve some of the symptoms, such as itchy skin.
In more severe cases, a liver transplant may be required.
Toxic megacolon is a rare and serious complication of severe ulcerative colitis where inflammation in the colon causes gas to become trapped, resulting in the colon becoming enlarged and swollen.
This is potentially very dangerous as it can cause the colon to rupture (split) and cause infection in the blood (septicaemia).
The symptoms of a toxic megacolon include:
- tummy pain
- a high temperature
- a rapid heart rate
Toxic megacolon can be treated with fluids, antibiotics and steroids given directly into a vein (intravenously).
If medicines do not improve the conditions quickly, surgical removal of the colon (a colectomy) may be needed.
Treating symptoms of ulcerative colitis before they become severe can help prevent toxic megacolon.
People who have ulcerative colitis have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer (cancer of the colon, rectum or bowel), especially if the condition is severe or involves most of the colon.
The longer you have ulcerative colitis, the greater the risk.
People with ulcerative colitis are often unaware they have bowel cancer as the initial symptoms of this type of cancer are similar.
- blood in your poo
- abdominal pain
You'll usually have regular check-ups to look for signs of bowel cancer from about 10 years after your symptoms first develop.
Check-ups will involve examining your bowel with a colonoscope (a long, flexible tube containing a camera) that's inserted into your rectum – this is called a colonoscopy.
The frequency of the colonoscopy examinations will increase the longer you live with the condition, and will also depend on factors such as how severe your ulcerative colitis is and if you have a family history of bowel cancer.
This can vary between every 1 to 5 years.
To reduce the risk of bowel cancer, it's important to:
- eat a balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
- take regular exercise
- maintain a healthy weight
- avoid alcohol and smoking
Taking aminosalicylates as prescribed can also help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.
Page last reviewed: 01 November 2022
Next review due: 01 November 2025