Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers to develop in the colon and rectum.

Currently, there is no cure for the disease other than surgical removal of the colon. But certain treatments and lifestyle changes can help ease symptoms. When receiving a diagnosis of UC, one of the hardest things to learn is that long-term medications and lifestyle changes might be necessary in order to enter UC remission. You may even try to avoid treatment for UC altogether, hoping symptoms will go away on their own.

If you’re struggling to decide whether or not to treat (or continue to treat) UC, it’s important for you to know the risks involved in leaving UC untreated.

Unpredictable flare-ups

Flare-ups can be very painful and often lead to bleeding, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.

You may feel disappointed whenever you experience a flare-up, and while it’s easy to self-blame (e.g., that taco I ate, those drinks I had, that third coffee), it’s important to know that UC is unpredictable and flare-ups can come at any time. You might be doing everything right with your diet and lifestyle, and your UC can still cause you problems.

One way to manage UC flare-ups is to get medical treatment and be consistent about it. There are a variety of different drug therapies to manage flares, including anti-inflammatories, steroids, biologics, and immunosuppressants. Check with your doctor when trying to choose the right drug therapy for you.

Severe dehydration and vitamin deficiencies

People with UC are susceptible to dehydration and vitamin deficiencies, especially when not treating UC. The reason for this is because diarrhea can lead to significant water and nutrient loss in the body.

You may even feel like you can’t take in enough water or nutrients to stay hydrated and healthy. Some complications from UC-related dehydration and vitamin deficiencies are:

  • general fatigue
  • body aches
  • headaches
  • seizures
  • fever
  • urinary and kidney issues

Your doctor is there to help you develop strategies to avoid dehydration and vitamin deficiencies during a UC flare-up. To prevent this, you can try drinking a lot of water, avoiding caffeinated or carbonated drinks, and staying away from any prune or veggie juices. But sometimes these methods alone aren’t enough. Your doctor can recommend specific multivitamins that will help you stay hydrated and also boost your immune system.

Persistent nausea

A common symptom of UC is nausea. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it can often lead to other UC complications such as loss of appetite and weight loss. This domino effect can trigger a host of issues that can result in relapses and flare-ups.

Your doctor can help you develop an anti-nausea plan that involves a nutrient-rich, low-fiber diet. This plan will ensure you’re eating enough and keep nausea at bay. One strategy is to eat small, fist-size meals that are easily digestible. Pureed foods may also help you.

Some key foods and drinks to stay away from when you are feeling nauseous include:

  • nuts and seeds
  • beans
  • raw veggies
  • dairy
  • fried food
  • spicy food
  • alcohol
  • chocolate

Other chronic conditions

If UC is left untreated, you may be at risk of developing other conditions. Some of these potential conditions include:

  • Arthritis or general joint pain. In the case of UC-related arthritis, joint pain tends to be limited to a few joints. With the proper diagnosis, a treatment plan that is complementary to your UC treatment can help immensely.
  • Liver damage. While rare, liver damage can become an issue if the liver becomes too inflamed or damaged. In most cases, the damage is reversible through treatment.
  • Osteoporosis. Untreated UC can cause severe vitamin D deficiencies. As a result, this can lead to osteoporosis. The risk is especially high for those with UC who are older. Vitamin supplements and diet changes can often greatly reduce this risk.
  • Colon cancer. People with UC are at a higher risk for this type of cancer. have suggested a link between the amount of time someone has been diagnosed with UC and their likelihood of developing colon cancer. However, with frequent monitoring and testing, the risk for UC-related colon cancer decreases significantly.

The takeaway

Most treatment plans for UC actively consider the severity of your particular case. If you’re avoiding getting diagnosed or treating UC because you’re afraid or think your symptoms are “not that bad,” find a doctor you trust and check in with them. There are many treatment options available, so there really is little reason to avoid getting the help you deserve.