High prevalence of undetected ulcerative colitis: data from the Nottingham fecal occult blood screening trial

Am J Gastroenterol. 2002 Mar;97(3):690-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1572-0241.2002.05586.x.


Objectives: Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is usually diagnosed as a result of symptoms but occasionally is found during investigation for other conditions. An earlier report from Nottingham had found a high prevalence of previously undetected "asymptomatic" IBD detected as a result of colorectal cancer screening, and the aim of this study was to reassess the prevalence, symptoms, and outcome in these patients.

Methods: We investigated subjects found to be fecal occult blood (FOB) positive in a randomized trial of FOB screening for colorectal cancer. All FOB-positive subjects were investigated by colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy and barium enema. Subjects with IBD were referred back to their general practitioner for any further investigation and treatment.

Results: Seventy-five thousand two hundred fifty-three subjects (aged 45-74) were sent FOB tests and 44,838 (60%) completed a series of tests on one or more occasions. Of 133,000 test series, 1.5% were positive. During investigation 53 cases of previously undetected IBD (52 of ulcerative colitis) were found; 52% (27/52) had proctosigmoiditis only, whereas 25% (13/52) had pancolitis. Only 17% (9/52) were completely asymptomatic, with a half or more reporting some rectal bleeding (54%) or diarrhea (50%). The overall prevalence of undetected ulcerative colitis was 69/10(5) (95% CI = 50-88/10(5)) in people offered screening and 116/10(5) (95% CI = 85-147/10(5)) in people accepting screening and was higher in men. Of 32 subjects followed up 2-12 yr after diagnosis, 91% (29) continued to have few or no symptoms, with only 12 currently receiving any treatment for their colitis.

Conclusions: In comparison with detected disease, undetected ulcerative colitis is relatively common but does usually cause some symptoms. It generally appears to follow a benign course, but a significant proportion have extensive colitis and may therefore be at an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Age Distribution
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / diagnosis*
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / epidemiology*
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / therapy
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening*
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Prevalence
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Sex Distribution
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology