Children's Hospital Colorado
Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center

Ulcerative Colitis in Kids

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What is ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease of the large intestine, or colon, in which the organ lining becomes inflamed and develops tiny open sores called ulcers. The combination of inflammation and ulcers can cause stomach pain and bloody diarrhea.

The other main type of IBD is Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease can affect any part of the digestive system, while ulcerative colitis affects only the large intestine.

IBD is not the same as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, a disorder that affects the muscle contractions of the large intestine. People with IBS do not experience inflammation in the intestine or damage to the intestinal lining.

What causes ulcerative colitis in children?

The cause of ulcerative colitis is unknown. Research has identified both hereditary (family genetics) and environmental factors as important. Although they do not cause ulcerative colitis, stress and diet can aggravate the condition.

A child may develop ulcerative colitis when their digestive system mistakes harmless bacteria for harmful bacteria. Everyone's gastrointestinal tract contains harmless bacteria, many of which help digest food. But in people with ulcerative colitis, the body launches an immune system attack against the harmless bacteria because it thinks that bacteria shouldn’t be there. When this happens, cells travel out of the blood and into the intestines to produce inflammation — a normal response that typically goes away on its own, except in people with ulcerative colitis. The inflammation causes ulcers, damage to the lining of the large intestine and noticeable symptoms.

Who gets ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis affects approximately 700,000 Americans. Males and females are equally likely to be affected. In children, the typical age range is 12 to 14, although cases are on the rise in children under 10.

While ulcerative colitis tends to run in families, researchers haven't been able to establish a clear hereditary pattern. Studies show that up to 20% of individuals with ulcerative colitis also have a close relative with the disease.

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Deborah Neigut, MD

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