How Ulcerative Colitis Is Treated

If you've been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, your treatment plan will take into consideration your specific symptoms and how long you have had the disease. A variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications, from antidiarrheals to antibiotics to anti-inflammatories, may be considered along with lifestyle modifications. Probiotics may also be recommended to help restore healthy gut bacteria. In more severe cases, surgical procedures to remove diseased parts of the colon can provide relief and reduce the risk of developing colon cancer. 

Find What Works for You

Finding what works best for you may take some trial and error on the part of you and your healthcare provider. Sometimes a treatment that was working stops providing relief, and your regimen may need to be changed.


Many different classes of medications are used to treat symptoms of ulcerative colitis, alone or in combination. Some may be taken regularly, while other fast-acting drugs are given on a short-term basis to treat an active flare-up.

Some of them can have serious side effects, so it's important to communicate with your healthcare provider and weigh the risks and benefits of continued treatment.

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Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first step in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. They include:

  • 5-aminosalicylates: Depending on which part of your colon is affected, you can take these orally, or as an enema or suppository. Some examples include Azulfidine (sulfasalazine), Asacol HD and Delzicol (mesalamine), Colazal (balsalazide), and Dipentum (olsalazine).
  • Corticosteroids: Prednisone and hydrocortisone fall into this category; they are generally reserved for moderate to severe ulcerative colitis that doesn't respond to other treatments. This is due to the potential for side effects, such as weight gain, high blood pressure, mood changes, fluid retention, and osteoporosis.

Immune System Suppressors

These medications control inflammation by suppressing the immune system response. They are often given in combination. This class includes:

  • Azasan and Imuran (azathioprine); Purinethol and Purixan (mercaptopurine): These are the most widely used immunosuppressants for treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. They suppress the immune system by interfering with the body's production of DNA molecules. If you take these, you will have to stay in close touch with your healthcare provider, who will check your blood regularly, as side effects can affect the liver and pancreas.
  • Gengraf, Neoral, and Sandimmune (cyclosporine): These are generally reserved for people who haven't responded well to other medications. Cyclosporine is believed to work by suppressing lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Because cyclosporine has the potential for serious side effects, it is not intended for long-term use.
  • Remicade (infliximab), Humira (adalimumab), and Simponi (golimumab): These drugs, called biologics or tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, control the abnormal immune response. They are typically used in people who haven't responded to or can't tolerate other treatments.
  • Entyvio (vedolizumab): This medication is used to treat ulcerative colitis in people who don't respond to or can't tolerate other treatments. It works by blocking inflammatory cells from getting to the site of inflammation.
  • Xeljanz (tofacitinib): This is an oral medication that can regulate immune cell function and is used to treat moderate to severe ulcerative colitis. Use does come with some possible risks, including serious heart-related events, cancer, blood clots, and death. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are a current or former smoker, have had a heart attack, other heart problems, stroke, or blood clots, as these may further increase your risk.


Antibiotics may be prescribed if an infection in the colon is suspected, but people with ulcerative colitis are sometimes counseled against the use of antibiotics when they are not clearly needed, as they can cause diarrhea.

Some researchers think there may be a connection between antibiotic use and the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), one form of which is ulcerative colitis. This theory is yet unproven, with only a few studies and anecdotal evidence to support it.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

Certain OTC medications may be used to relieve some symptoms of ulcerative colitis, though they are used in conjunction with prescription drugs because they do not address the underlying causes of the disease.

Always talk to your healthcare provider before purchasing OTC medications. Here are some that may be recommended:

  • Antidiarrheal medications: Imodium (loperamide) can help with diarrhea, but use it and other brands of this drug with caution, as they can increase the risk of an enlarged colon (toxic megacolon).
  • Pain relievers: For mild pain, your healthcare provider may recommend Tylenol (acetaminophen). Avoid Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen sodium), and Voltaren (diclofenac sodium), which can worsen symptoms and increase the severity of the disease.
  • Enemas and suppositories: Those containing butyrate may be effective in treating ulcerative colitis in the very last sections of the colon (which is often called distal ulcerative colitis). Butyrate has been shown to be beneficial to the cells in the intestinal tract by combating inflammation, preventing cells from becoming cancerous, and reducing the effects of oxidative stress (a process by which cells can get damaged and then be unable to function properly).
  • Iron supplements: If you have chronic intestinal bleeding, you may develop iron deficiency anemia; iron supplements may help.

Some people turn to probiotics for help managing conditions like ulcerative colitis, but it's important to know this approach is not endorsed by gastroenterologists. In its latest clinical practice guidelines, the American Gastroenterological Association recommends the use of probiotics in adults and children with ulcerative colitis only in the context of a clinical trial.


About 30% of people with ulcerative colitis will require surgery to get relief from symptoms, dangerous medication side effects, or to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Emergency surgery is sometimes required if there is a sudden perforation of the colon or massive bleeding. The surgery, called a colectomy, involves removal of the large intestine (colon).

There are various types of colectomy surgery, with these two being the most common in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. You and your surgeon will discuss which option is best for you, based your specific symptoms and overall health status, as well as lifestyle and personal preferences. 

"J-Pouch" Surgery 

In this procedure—officially known as proctocolectomy with ileal pouch-anal anastomosis (IPAA)—the large intestine and most of the rectum are removed, and a small reservoir (called a J-pouch) is created out of the small intestine and attached to the remaining portion of the rectum just above the anus.

Because the muscles of the anus (anal sphincter) are not removed, this procedure allows people to remain in control of their bowels.

When the J-pouch is done for ulcerative colitis, it is considered a treatment, not a cure, because certain manifestations of IBD that can occur outside of the intestines are still possible. Furthermore, because intestinal tissue remains, the procedure does not eliminate the risk of colon cancer. 

Total Proctocolectomy

This surgery involves complete removal of the large intestine, rectum, and anus, and permanently cures ulcerative colitis and eliminates the risk of colon cancer. However, because the rectum and anus are removed, you must have a permanent ileostomy.

In an ileostomy, a surgeon brings the end of the lowest portion of the small intestine (ileum) out through an opening in the abdominal wall (stoma).

People who have an ileostomy must always wear a plastic bag (ileostomy bag) over the opening to collect the stool that comes out. 

Complementary Medicine (CAM)

While some of these remedies are believed to be effective in alleviating symptoms, none have undergone extensive clinical research. Furthermore, their role in the prevention of disease progression is unknown.

Here are three that have begun to attract the attention of medical researchers:


Probiotics are believed to be beneficial in managing ulcerative colitis and other chronic digestive disorders. Probiotics contain so-called "friendly" bacteria are often able to control more harmful bacteria while reducing inflammation and improving the protective mucus lining of the gut.

Although probioitcs for ulcerative colitis are generally considered to be safe, it's important to know this approach is not endorsed by gastroenterologists. In its latest clinical practice guidelines, the American Gastroenterological Association recommends the use of probiotics in adults and children with ulcerative colitis only in the context of a clinical trial.

Aloe Vera Gel

Pure aloe vera gel—from inside the leaf of the aloe plant—has been found to have an anti-inflammatory effect in people with ulcerative colitis. Aloe vera juice, however, may have a laxative effect and is therefore not a good choice if you have diarrhea. 


Boswellia is a medicinal herb derived from a tree native to India. The active ingredient is found in the resin of the bark and is believed to have robust anti-inflammatory effects. In its extracted form, Boswellia is used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and it is said to do so without the stomach irritation often seen with conventional pain relievers.

Keep in mind that supplements and other forms of alternative therapies have not been stringently tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, or individuals with medical conditions.

Always tell your healthcare provider about any supplements, herbs, or homeopathic remedies you are taking or that you may want to try.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Changes in your diet and lifestyle may help control your symptoms and lengthen the time between flare-ups. You may be able to find some relief from ulcerative colitis by taking some of the following measures:

At home remedies.

Verywell / Brooke Pelczynski

  • Limit dairy products. Problems such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gas may improve by limiting or eliminating dairy products. You may be lactose intolerant—that is, your body can't digest the milk sugar (lactose) in dairy foods. Using an enzyme product such as Lactaid may help as well.
  • Limit fiber. High-fiber foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, may make your symptoms worse. If raw fruits and vegetables bother you, try cooking them. (Foods in the cabbage family, such as broccoli and cauliflower, may be especially irritating.)
  • Try fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats found in salmon and mackerel, may keep inflammation at bay and ease ulcerative colitis symptoms.
  • Avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine. These may make your symptoms worse.
  • Eat small meals. Five or six small meals a day rather than two or three larger ones may help you digest more easily and efficiently.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes ulcerative colitis?

    Ulcerative colitis can be caused by multiple factors, including genetics and environmental factors. Your body may have an autoimmune reaction to a foreign invader, such as bacteria, or a response to a trigger like smoking or certain medications. You may also have a genetic predisposition to ulcerative colitis as there are at least 100 genes that may influence this condition.

  • Can you cure ulcerative colitis?

    Technically, there is currently no known cure for ulcerative colitis, though treatments can manage its symptoms.

  • What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?

    Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, urgent need to empty bowels, and loss of appetite.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.