Standard treatment of ulcerative colitis

Paolo Gionchetti, Fernando Rizzello, Flavio Habal, Claudia Morselli, Cristina Amadini, Rossella Romagnoli, Massimo Campieri
Digestive Diseases 2003, 21 (2): 157-67
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an idiopathic, chronic inflammation of the colon which may present with a range of mild to severe symptoms. The disease may be localized to the rectum or can be more extensive and involve the left side of the colon or the whole colon. Treatment in UC is directed towards inducing and maintaining remission of symptoms and mucosal inflammation. The key parameters to be assessed for the most appropriate treatment are the severity and extent of the inflammation. Meta-analyses of published trials have shown that topical treatment with 5-aminosalicylic acid (5-ASA) is the treatment of choice in active distal mild-to-moderate UC. Oral aminosalicylates are effective in both distal and extensive mild-to-moderate disease, but in distal disease, the rates of remission are lower than those obtained with topical 5-ASA. New steroids, such as budesonide and beclomethasone dipropionate (BDP), administered as enemas, constitute an alternative to 5-ASA therapy. In some studies, these have been shown to be as effective as conventional steroids but with significantly lower inhibition of plasma cortisol levels. Patients with unresponsive disease or those with more severe presentation will require oral corticosteroids and sometimes intravenous therapy. Approximately 10% of patients with unresponsive UC have severe attacks requiring hospitalization. Patients with severe disease should be managed jointly by a medical and surgical team, and intensive intravenous treatment should be started with high-dose steroids. Early recognition of failure of therapy will allow the introduction of immunosuppressive therapy with intravenous cyclosporine. Patients who respond are shifted to oral cyclosporine associated with azathioprine/6-mercaptopurine, whereas those who fail will require proctocolectomy. Oral aminosalicylates are the first-line therapy in maintenance of remission. Topical 5-ASA may play a role in distal disease. Patients who are steroid dependent can be started on azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine although it may take up to 3 months for the treatment to become effective. They may have reversible immediate side effects, such as pancreatitis or bone marrow suppression, which disappear upon discontinuation of therapy. Close monitoring of these hematologic and biochemical parameters will improve safety. The use of biologic therapy with infliximab in more severe disease has not been established.

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