Ulcerative Colitis

  • Medical Author: Adam Schoenfeld, MD
  • Medical Author: George Y. Wu, MD, PhD
  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Quick GuideUlcerative Colitis Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Ulcerative Colitis Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Systemic corticosteroids (including side effects)

Corticosteroids (Prednisone, prednisolone, hydrocortisone, etc.) have been used for many years in the treatment of patients with moderate to severe Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis or who fail to respond to optimal doses of 5-ASA compounds. Unlike the 5-ASA compounds, corticosteroids do not require direct contact with the inflamed intestinal tissues to be effective. Oral corticosteroids are potent anti-inflammatory agents. After absorption, corticosteroids exert prompt anti-inflammatory action throughout the body. Consequently, they are used in treating Crohn's enteritis, ileitis, and ileocolitis, as well as ulcerative and Crohn's colitis. In critically ill patients, intravenous corticosteroids (such as hydrocortisone) can be given in the hospital.

Corticosteroids are faster acting than the 5-ASA compounds. Patients frequently experience improvement in their symptoms within days of starting corticosteroids. Corticosteroids, however, do not appear to be useful in maintaining remissions in ulcerative colitis.

Corticosteroid side effects

Side effects of corticosteroids depend on the dose and duration of use. Short courses of prednisone, for example, usually are well tolerated with few and mild side effects. Long term, high doses of corticosteroids usually produce predictable and potentially serious side effects. Common side effects include rounding of the face (moon face), acne, increased body hair, diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, cataracts, glaucoma, increased susceptibility to infections, muscle weakness, depression, insomnia, mood swings, personality changes, irritability, and thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) with an accompanying increased risk of compression fractures of the spine. Children on corticosteroids can experience stunted growth.

The most serious complication from long term corticosteroid use is aseptic necrosis of the hip joints. Aseptic necrosis means death of bone tissue. It is a painful condition that can ultimately lead to the need for surgical replacement of the hips. Aseptic necrosis also has been reported in knee joints. It is unknown how corticosteroids cause aseptic necrosis. Patients on corticosteroids who develop pain in the hips or knees should report the pain to their doctors promptly. Early diagnosis of aseptic necrosis with cessation of corticosteroids has been reported in some patients to decrease the severity of the condition and possibly help avoid hip replacement.

Prolonged use of corticosteroids can depress the ability of the body's adrenal glands to produce cortisol (a natural corticosteroid necessary for proper functioning of the body). Abruptly discontinuing corticosteroids can cause symptoms due to a lack of natural cortisol (a condition called adrenal insufficiency). Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include nausea, vomiting, and even shock. Withdrawing corticosteroids too quickly also can produce symptoms of joint aches, fever, and malaise. Therefore, corticosteroids need to be gradually reduced rather than abruptly stopped.

Even after the corticosteroids are discontinued, the adrenal glands' ability to produce cortisol can remain depressed for months to two years. The depressed adrenal glands may not be able to produce enough cortisol to help the body handle stress such as accidents, surgery, and infections. These patients will need treatment with corticosteroids (prednisone, hydrocortisone, etc.) during stressful situations to avoid developing adrenal insufficiency.

Because corticosteroids are not useful in maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease and because they have predictable and potentially serious side effects, these drugs should be used for the shortest possible length of time.

Proper Use of Corticosteroids

Once the decision is made to use oral corticosteroids, treatment usually is initiated with prednisone, 40-60 mg daily. The majority of patients with ulcerative colitis respond with an improvement in symptoms. Once symptoms improve, prednisone is reduced by 5-10 mg per week until the dose of 20 mg per day is reached. The dose then is tapered at a slower rate until the prednisone ultimately is discontinued. Gradually reducing corticosteroids not only minimizes the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency, it also reduces the chances of abrupt relapse of the colitis.

Many doctors use 5-ASA compounds at the same time as corticosteroids. In patients who achieve remission with systemic corticosteroids, 5-ASA compounds such as Asacol are often continued to maintain remissions.

In patients whose symptoms return during reduction of the dose of corticosteroid, the dose of corticosteroids is increased slightly to control the symptoms. Once the symptoms are under control, the reduction can resume at a slower pace. Some patients become corticosteroid dependent. These patients consistently develop symptoms of colitis whenever the corticosteroid dose reaches below a certain level. In patients who are corticosteroid dependent or who are unresponsive to corticosteroids, other anti-inflammatory medications, immunomodulator medications or surgery are considered.

The management of patients who are corticosteroid dependent or patients with severe disease which responds poorly to medications is complex. Doctors who are experienced in treating inflammatory bowel disease and in using the immunomodulators should evaluate these patients.

Preventing Corticosteroid-induced Osteoporosis

Long-term use of corticosteroids such as prednisolone or prednisone can cause osteoporosis . Corticosteroids cause decreased calcium absorption from the intestines and increased loss of calcium from the kidneys and bones. Increasing dietary calcium intake is important but alone cannot halt corticosteroid-induced bone loss. Management of patients on long term corticosteroids should include:

  • Adequate calcium (1000 mg daily if premenopausal, 1500 mg daily if postmenopausal) and vitamin D (800 units daily) intake.
  • Periodic review with the doctor on the need for continued corticosteroid treatment and the lowest effective dose if continued treatment is necessary.
  • A bone density study to measure the extent of bone loss in patients taking corticosteroids for more than three months.
  • Regular weight-bearing exercise, and stop smoking cigarettes.
  • Discussion with the doctor regarding the use of alendronate (Fosamax) or risedronate (Actonel) in the prevention and the treatment of corticosteroid induced osteoporosis.

Budesonide (Entocort EC)

Oral budesonide (Entocort EC) is a topically acting corticosteroid which was been shown to be effective in Crohn's disease, and in enema formulation for left-sided ulcerative colitis with fewer side effects than oral steroids. In a recent meta-analysis, however, it was found to be significantly less likely to induce clinical remission in patients with ulcerative colitis than oral mesalamine after 8 weeks of therapy. Therefore, use of this medication is not recommended at this time to treat flares of ulcerative colitis.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/29/2016

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