The colon is also known as the large intestine. There are a large number of colon diseases and disorders, which can affect the functions of the colon. When people have diseases of the colon, digestive system problems may result.
What are some of the more common colon diseases? What symptoms can colon problems cause? Is there a way to screen for these diseases?
What are colon diseases?
The colon is the final organ of the digestive tract. The absorption of nutrients occurs primarily in the small intestine, and the remaining material passes to the colon. The colon has a number of functions, including:
- Absorbing water
- Absorbing electrolytes (minerals, such as sodium)
- Housing probiotics (beneficial bacteria), which further break down the waste and also make certain vitamins
- Absorbing some vitamins
- Forming the remaining waste products into stool (poop), and moving it towards the rectum so that it can leave the body
Colon diseases may interfere with these functions. Someone with any disease of the colon may notice changes in their bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea.
What are some common colon diseases?
Some of the more common diseases of the colon include:
- Colorectal cancer. This is one of the most common types of cancer in the US. It may form anywhere in the colon or in the rectum. Many cases of colorectal cancer can be caught early through screening tests, such as a test for blood in the stool or a colonoscopy.
- Colon polyps. Polyps are growths of tissue that form inside the colon. In some cases, colon polyps are precancerous, meaning that they have a chance of turning into cancer if they’re not removed. A colonoscopy is used to look for and remove polyps from the colon. Polyps may also cause bleeding and may partially block the flow of material through the colon.
- Diverticulitis. Small pouches, called diverticuli, can form in the wall of the colon. This is known as diverticulosis. If one of the diverticuli gets inflamed or infected, then this is known as diverticulitis. It causes fever, abdominal pain and tenderness, nausea, and a significant change in bowel habits (either diarrhea or constipation).
- Ulcerative colitis. This is an autoimmune disease, meaning that it’s caused by the patient’s immune system attacking their own tissues. Ulcerative colitis causes sores to form inside the colon. As with other autoimmune diseases, the symptoms tend to come and go.
- Irritable bowel syndrome. This condition causes symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating, along with diarrhea and/or constipation. It’s considered to be a functional condition, because these symptoms occur without obvious damage to the tissues of the colon. The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not well understood.
Many colon conditions can cause blood to appear in the stool. One way to screen for these conditions is to test for blood in the stool. This test can be performed at home, making it very convenient for most people. You simply order a home test kit, take a sample, and mail it back to the lab. If there’s evidence of blood in your stool, then you may need additional testing to determine what’s causing this.
Many common gastrointestinal (GI) viruses, like norovirus and rotavirus, can infect the colon as well as other parts of the digestive tract. This is also known as a “stomach flu,” and often causes nausea and diarrhea. Although these viruses are extremely contagious, they also tend to pass quickly. The main danger is dehydration, so it’s important to ensure that you’re consuming enough fluids as well as minerals (salt) when you have a virus like this.
What are some rare colon diseases?
There are also some colon diseases that are more rare. These include congenital colon abnormalities, which people are born with, as well as other diseases that can develop over time. A few rare colon diseases include:
- Hirschsprung’s disease. This is a congenital condition, in which certain nerve cells are missing in the colon. This makes it difficult for the colon to move material through, which leads to significant digestive problems.
- Ogilvie syndrome. This condition is also known as intestinal pseudo-obstruction. Nerve or muscle problems cause the colon to stop moving material through. It’s known as a “pseudo-obstruction” because the symptoms are the same as an obstruction of the colon, which occurs when something blocks the flow of material through the colon. However, no physical obstruction can be found. Instead, the condition is caused by a functional abnormality.
- Eosinophilic colitis. This disease is most common in babies, but can occur in people at any age. A type of white blood cell known as an eosinophil collects in the wall of the colon, causing irritation and interfering with the colon’s function.
There are also other rare types of colon abnormalities and conditions.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that might indicate a colon disease, it’s a good idea to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. They can check for serious conditions like colon cancer, and may be able to offer treatment options that can help to improve your quality of life.
Large Intestine (Colon). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22134-colon-large-intestine. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.
Colorectal Cancer Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/statistics/index.htm. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.
Diverticulitis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diverticulitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20371758. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.
Hirschsprung’s disease. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hirschsprungs-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20351556. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.
Ogilvie Syndrome. National Organization for Rare Diseases. https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/ogilvie-syndrome/. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.
Eosinophilic Colitis (EoC). Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/e/eosinophilic-colitis. Accessed 3 Dec 2022.