Can you die from ulcerative colitis? Complications and emergencies

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). According to estimates, it may affect as many as 907,000 people in the United States.

In this article, we look at the potential complications of UC. We also cover the symptoms of each complication to help people with UC detect serious problems early and get urgent care where necessary.

Can you die from ulcerative colitis?

Although UC is a lifelong condition, it is not usually life-threatening.

There is no cure for UC, but treatments can help prevent flare-ups, or episodes of symptoms, and allow people to achieve and maintain symptom-free periods called remission.

As a result of these treatments, people with UC and other forms of IBD tend to have survival rates that are similar to those of people without the disease.

However, UC can increase a person’s risk of developing severe complications, especially if the disease does not respond to treatment.

Life-threatening complications

A person with UC may have a higher risk of the following health problems:

Toxic megacolon

Although it is rare, doctors consider toxic megacolon to be the most serious complication of IBD.

Toxic megacolon occurs when inflammation of the colon causes it to enlarge. This enlargement prevents the colon from contracting correctly, resulting in a buildup of gas.

As the colon swells with gas, it is increasingly likely to burst. If the colon bursts, it can release harmful bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream.

According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation (CFF), between 5 and 8 percent of people with UC will develop colorectal cancer within 20 years of their diagnosis.

The increased risk of developing colorectal cancer is most likely to affect people with severe UC and those who have had symptoms for 8 to 10 years.

People who have not received treatment for UC also have a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

People with these risk factors are more likely to develop dysplasia, in which abnormal cells are present in the lining of the colon or rectum. These abnormal cells may become cancerous over time.

The CFF recommend that people with UC take the following steps to reduce their risk of colorectal cancer:

  • have a colonoscopy every 1 to 2 years
  • visit a gastroenterologist at least once a year
  • discuss symptoms and concerns during regular checkups
  • continue to take their prescribed medications even if they feel better
  • notify a doctor if a family member develops colorectal cancer
  • exercise regularly
  • eat a healthful diet


A person with colorectal cancer may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than a few days
  • a constant feeling of needing to empty the bowels
  • rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • dark stools
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • weakness and fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss

Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) is a condition that involves inflammation and damage to the bile ducts. The bile ducts are tubes that transport digestive enzymes out of the liver and into the digestive system.

PSC affects about 3 percent of people with IBD and generally only occurs when the bowel disease is extensive.

PSC is a lifelong disease that typically progresses slowly, and it also increases the risk of some potentially life-threatening complications.


Common symptoms of PSC include:

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • intense itching, especially on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • chills
  • fever

In the later stages of PSC, a person may experience the following complications, which can indicate severe liver disease:

                                    A person who experiences any of the above symptoms should seek urgent medical attention. Severe liver disease can be life-threatening.


                                    Although doctors do not usually classify UC as a life-threatening disease, having this condition can increase the risk of more severe health complications.

                                    People who are familiar with the symptoms that UC complications can cause will be better equipped to detect any changes in their health.

                                    Early recognition of these symptoms can allow people with suspected complications to seek treatment without delay.

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