I thought I’d spend some time on “hidden” illnesses; ones where the person is ill and you may not even know it.  Because of my personal relationship with it, I’m going to start with ulcerative colitis.

Illustration of Human Intestines

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease or digestive disorder (WebMD lists both).  It is related to Crohn’s Disease, but while Crohn’s affects the entire digestive system, UC affects only the colon (large intestine) and rectum.  Ulcers form on the inside of the digestive tract and there is considerable inflammation.  The more of the digestive tract that is affected, the worse the symptoms may be.

Symptoms include belly pain and cramping, diahrrea, and sometimes bleeding.  In more severe cases, there may be a fever, weight loss, and/ or extreme diahrrea (which increases the risk of dehydration).

Most people will go months or even years without symptoms (remission), then have a flare-up.  For me, it can come on without any warning the first time, then recede slightly, but continue to have flare-ups for several weeks.  Then it will go away for a while.  I have gone years without it, but I’m currently in a high-stress lifestyle, so I have flare-ups more often.

When a flare-up occurs, my intestine gets inflammed (sometimes causing pain and cramping, but not always).  My food will backup and not be digested fully until the pressure/pain is too much.  Then, uncontrollable diahrrea, sometimes (for me) accompanied by passing out from the blood all flowing to the inflammed area.

Diagnosis of UC includes talking about symptoms, a physical exam, and a number of tests including a colonoscopy, possible biopsy, blood tests, and stool tests.

Medication for UC includes steroids (short term), immunomodulators to control the immune system, aminosalicylates to reduce symptoms or prevent flare-ups, and over-the-counter diahrrea medication like Immodium.

Certain foods seem to irritate UC more than others.  I try to avoid popcorn, nitrates (like those found in bacon, pepperoni, or hotdogs), iceberg lettuce, much caffeine or alcohol, and anything very acidic.

Because vitamin deficiency and dehydration are two very real risks with UC, I try to drink a lot of water and eat as balanced of a diet as I can.  I do more hard cheeses and yogurts to get my dairy, I vary my vegetables (but rarely do salads), cut out a lot of processed foods, and when nothing else works, I go for a liquid diet or a one-meal fast.  A lot of times missing one meal will give my body enough of a break that I can recover more quickly and get back to “regular life”.

UC requires a few lifestyle changes.  I try to always know where a bathroom is and I’ve had to make do in an emergency.  I keep a “flare-up kit” on me that includes a change of underwear, sanitary pad, plastic bag/baggies, and wipes.  I’ve learned to stop apologizing for being sick (usually) and to just adapt.  I haven’t learned to completely give up popcorn or caffeine or exercise, but I try to moderate all three.

There are worse invisible diseases to live with, but there are definite risks for UC.  I could have to have surgery at some point, and my risk of colon cancer is higher than the general population.  As healthily as I try to eat, I could be malnourished or dehydrated at any time.  I’ve passed out in some scary situations (never, ever on the road or I’d just stop driving altogether).  Still, it’s not life-threatening in itself and I can still have good quality of life living with it.  But the next time someone makes a mad dash for the bathroom or, worse, embarasses themselves by not getting there in time, know that they could be suffering from UC.. and have a little sympathy.