The term colitis is often used very loosely - Albuquerque Journal

The term colitis is often used very loosely

Q: Doctor, my mother has colitis. Can my child develop it?

A: The term colitis is often used very loosely. In fact, it seems that many individuals who say they have colitis actually do not have colitis! Let me explain.

The colon is the last part of the intestines. It is also called the large intestine and is about 2-to-3-feet long. It roughly starts where your appendix sits and ends at the very end where you pass stools from. Though it has many functions in water and electrolyte balance, the key is to store stool till such time that you are ready to evacuate.

Any inflammation or infection of the colon is referred to as colitis. Hence the word colitis does not give a very accurate picture. Yes, people do get “infectious” colitis and that could be further broken down if the infectious agent is identified. Infectious colitis could occur from consuming too many antibiotics which kill off the good bacteria. Some can acquire it by travelling to areas where the water sanitation is not the best, consuming spoilt food or while camping or from certain pets.

Infection of the colon or infectious colitis does also lead to an inflammation of the colon but of a different type. In addition, there are multiple inflammatory conditions as well that affect the colon, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease being the most well-known. The exact reason for the development of these inflammatory conditions is not known. Both these conditions come under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Both the above (infectious and inflammatory) conditions can occur in children and adults. They often run in families and siblings. And yes, these are overall referred to as some form of colitis, but in itself, the word colitis does not give us a lot of information.

However, the more common condition worldwide is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Here too, the colon does get involved. You may get diarrhea or constipation or both, you may get pain and bloating and it could be uncomfortable and annoying, often made worse by some foods or stress. This tends to run in families as well and we do see it in children. But the term colitis, which is often used loosely for this condition i.e. for IBS, is wrong. And the reason for that is that in IBS there is no infection or inflammation (though it is now known that infection can initiate IBS).

Hence, to answer your question, yes, your child can develop colitis if the grandmother has colitis, but the key point would be to answer if there is an infection, inflammation or neither, in which case it is functional. To make the point, IBS and IBD are very different conditions, in fact they are poles apart, IBS being far more common in our population than IBD. And they both often affect the colon, one has no colitis and the other does.

Both these conditions are long term and require very different management strategies. Infectious colitis is probably the most common cause of colitis in certain parts of the world, but not so in ours, and though it can make the person very sick, it can affect family members as infections often spread easily, it is usually a short-lived condition.

Pankaj Vohra is a Pediatric Gastroenterologist at UNM. Please send your questions to pvohra@salud.unm.edu.

 

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