Radiation colitis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Qasim Salau, M.B.B.S., FMCPaed [2]

Synonyms and keywords: Radiation proctocolitis


Radiation therapy is a common treatment modality for abdominal and pelvic malignancy. Radiation colitis may complicate this treatment. Radiation colitis tends to develop insidiously and it is often progressive when chronic.

Historical Perspective

  • Radiation-induced enteritis was first described by Walsh in an individual working with x rays in 1897.[1]
  • In 1917, radiation-induced enteritis was reported following radiation treatment of malignancy.
  • The early and late intestinal effect of radiotherapy was first described by Warren and Friedman in 1942.[2]


Radiation colitis may be classified based on duration of symptoms into acute and chronic radiation colitis:[3][4][5][6]

  • Acute radiation colitis occurs from after the initiation of therapy to 3 months (90 days) after the onset of therapy.
  • Chronic radiation colitis occurs from after 3 months of radiation therapy to years after therapy, with a median duration of 8 to 12 months after completion of radiation therapy.




There is no specific genetic cause for radiation colitis.

Gross Pathology

  • Endoscopy should be gentle and performed with care, especially in acute radiation colitis.
  • In acute radiation colitis, the mucosa may appear erythematous or pale, edematous, friable with or without small erosions.
  • In chronic radiation colitis, mucosa atrophy, fibrosis, obliterative arteritis, stenosis, strictures, fistula, and ulcers are observed.

Microscopic Histopathology

Histopathological findings of radiation colitis may be categorized into the following:

Differentiating Radiation Colitis from Other Diseases

Symptoms of acute radiation acute radiation proctitis may overlap with other causes of acute colitis, but prior history of radiation will help in distinguishing the cause. Differential diagnosis of acute radiation colitis include:

Differential diagnosis of chronic radiation colitis include:

  • The symptoms of colitis, such as diarrhea (especially bloody diarrhea), and abdominal pain are observed in all forms of colitis. The table below lists the differential diagnosis of common causes of colitis:[11][12]
Diseases History and Symptoms Physical Examination Laboratory findings
Diarrhea Rectal bleeding Abdominal pain Atopy Dehydration Fever Hypotension Malnutrition Blood in stool (frank or occult) Microorganism in stool Pseudomembranes on endoscopy Lab Test 4
Allergic Colitis + ++ + ++ ++
Chemical colitis + ++ ++ + + ++ +
Infectious colitis ++ ++ ++ +++ +++ ++ + ++ ++ +
Radiation colitis + ++ + + + ++
Ischemic colitis + + ++ + + + + ++
Drug-induced colitis + + ++ + ++ +

Epidemiology and Demographics

The exact prevalence and incidence of radiation colitis is not certain due to different methods of definition. The incidence of acute radiation injury to the bowel is said to be about 75% to 80% of patients receiving pelvic radiotherapy, while 15% to 20% of patients receiving pelvic radiotherapy will develop chronic radiation injury to the bowel. [4][6][10][13]


The prevalence of radiation colitis is more among older age group (over 60 years) patients. This may be a reflection of the increase frequency of predisposing malignancy requiring radiotherapy in this age group.[6][13][14]


Men and women are affected equally by radiation colitis.


There is no racial predilection to radiation colitis.

Risk Factors

Common risk factors for developing radiation colitis include:[5][6][15]


There are no established screening guidelines for radiation colitis[16]

Natural History, Complications and Prognosis

Natural History

The symptoms and extent of radiation colitis are variable and usually develop insidiously. The symptoms depend on the dose and duration of the radiation and how sensitive the bowel is to radiation. In acute radiation colitis, symptoms usually start shortly after commencement of radiation therapy and progress reaching a peak 1 to 2 weeks later. The symptoms of acute radiation colitis may not start for up to 3 months after commencement of radiation. In most cases, the symptoms of acute radiation colitis are self-limiting and resolve following termination of radiation therapy. The symptoms of chronic radiation colitis often become noticeable months to years after the completion of radiotherapy. The symptoms may occasionally follow acute radiation colitis. However, previous acute radiation colitis does not increase the risk of a patient developing chronic radiation colitis. Also, absence of acute radiation colitis, does not prevent chronic radiation colitis from occurring. Treatment is required for chronic radiation colitis because resolution of the symptoms is uncommon without intervention.[4][17]


Possible complications of radiation colitis include:[4][17]


The prognosis of radiation colitis varies with the subtype, severity, duration and responsiveness to treatment.[4][15][17]

  • Acute radiation colitis is usually self-limiting, with resolution of symptoms few weeks after stopping radiotherapy.
  • Chronic radiation colitis is progressive and difficult to manage. The patients may develop secondary radiation-associated malignancy which has a poor prognosis due to late diagnosis.


Diagnostic Criteria

There is no definitive diagnostic criteria for radiation colitis. Diagnosis of radiation colitis is primarily clinical; it is based on history, physical examination and endoscopic findings.[4][17]

History and Symptoms

Obtaining a complete history including dietary history is an important aspect in making a diagnosis of radiation colitis. It provides insight into the cause, and any associated underlying conditions. Radiation colitis should be suspected in any individual who presents with intestinal symptoms and has a previous history of abdominal and/ or pelvic radiotherapy. Symptoms of radiation colitis may be categorized according to duration as follows:

Acute radiation colitis

Chronic radiation colitis

Physical Examination

Physical examination findings may reveal:

Laboratory Findings

Initial investigations should include hematological, biochemistry profiles and stool examination.



Stool Examination

Stool analysis may show:

  • Fecal blood
  • Fecal leukocytes
  • Negative stool culture


Endoscopy is important to confirm the diagnosis of radiation colitis. However, endoscopy should be performed with care due to the fragile nature of the bowel following radiation therapy. Biopsy is generally not recommended during endoscopy especially in acute radiation colitis.[4][17]

  • Features observed in acute radiation colitis on endoscopy include friable, hyperemic, edematous mucosa with/ or without ulcers that are often shallow. The features in acute radiation colitis are limited to the superficial parts of the colonic mucosa.
  • Chronic radiation colitis involves the whole of the colonic mucosa. Features include mucosal pallor, fibrosis, strictures, ulcers, and telangiectasias, which bleeds easily. The colonic wall is often rigid.

Other Diagnostic Studies

Other diagnostic studies in radiation colitis include:[10]

Barium enema

May show decreased peristalsis and distention of the colon, stenosis, presence of ulcers, and fistulas. It is less sensitive to endoscopy


CT findings include increased density and fibrosis of the pericolonic fat, fascia and colonic wall. It also helps to rule out perforation. It is difficult to distinguish between radiation colitis and cancer.

X Ray

There are no specific x ray features of radiation colitis. However, it may be helpful to rule out perforation.


Medical Therapy

The mainstay of treatment for radiation colitis is conservative medical therapy. Medical therapy depends on whether radiation colitis is acute or chronic.[4][5][9][10][15][20]

Acute radiation colitis

Acute radiation colitis is a self-limiting illness which usually resolves on stopping radiotherapy. Supportive therapy is the only treatment required in the majority of cases. These include:

  • Correction of dehydration and electrolyte derangements by giving intravenous fluids or oral rehydration therapy whenever feasible
  • Use of anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide
  • Dietary modification by decreasing fat and lactose intake
  • Use of synthetic somatostatin analog octreotide in patients with refractory diarrhea
  • Steroid and 5-aminosalicylic acid suppositories have also been used to treat bowel inflammation associated with radiation therapy
  • Definitive treatment is by stopping radiation therapy

Chronic radiation colitis

Chronic radiation colitis is a progressive disease that is often difficult to treat. The colon is fragile with fibrosis and neovascularization, making it prone to bleeding with minimal trauma. The most frequent symptom of chronic radiation colitis is diarrhea. Treatment of chronic radiation colitis includes:

  • Supportive fluid and electrolyte replacement due to chronic diarrhea and use of anti-diarrhea medications
  • Giving high fiber (low residue) diet, with low lactose and fats
  • Anti-inflammatory therapy using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as 5-aminosalicylic acid or sulfasalazine with/without the addition of steroids is often the first-line treatment used in most cases of chronic radiation colitis
  • Sucralfate (a sulphated polyanionic disaccharide) is used when anti-inflammatory therapy fails to improve symptoms. It is thought work through promotion of healing of the intestinal epithelium and formation of a protective barrier in the bowel.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) is also used in the treatment of chronic radiation colitis. It is thought to work through its angiogenic and antibacterial effects, reducing tissue hypoxia and therefore promoting colonic mucosa healing and regeneration.
  • Short chain fatty acid (SCFA) enemas have also been used in the treatment of radiation colitis. They stimulate colonic mucosa proliferation and have vasodilatory effect on the arteriole walls.
  • Anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, C and E have been used as adjuncts in the treatment of chronic radiation colitis, with favorable response.
  • Transfusion may be required to treat anemia from hemorrhagic telengiectasia.

Ablative therapy

Ablative treatment using formalin, endoscopic coagulation, or argon plasma coagulation is done when symptom fail to improve with medical therapy. Ablative treatment should be done with care in patients with chronic radiation colitis because of the fragile bowel which increases the risk of complications such as bleeding, stenosis, perforation and fistula formation.

Surgical Therapy

Surgical intervention in chronic radiation colitis is commonly reserved for management of complications or rarely for diagnosis. About 10 to 30 percent of individuals with radiation colitis will require surgery.[4][15] Indications for surgery in radiation colitis include:

Surgical interventions for chronic radiation colitis include intestinal bypass procedures, colonic resection, and bowel reconstruction.


Primary prevention

There is presently no established method of prevention for radiation colitis. However, individuals with chronic radiation colitis should be followed up closely because of the risk of development of secondary radiation-induced malignancy.

Secondary prevention

There are no secondary prevention methods for radiation colitis.


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