Approaches to the prevention and management of radiation colitis

Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2008 Oct;10(5):507-13. doi: 10.1007/s11894-008-0093-9.


Radiation colitis refers to the characteristic changes in the mucosa of the colon and rectum secondary to pelvic radiation. Based on the interval from radiation to mucosal changes or symptoms, there are two well-defined forms of radiation colitis: acute, manifested by mucosal sloughing causing diarrhea, mucus discharge, and tenesmus; and chronic, characterized by obstructed defecation or ischemia of the mucosa due to obliterative endarteritis and resulting in mucosal telangiectasias, mucosal pallor, and friability causing rectal bleeding. Up to 25% of all patients receiving pelvic radiation develop mild symptoms, and 2% to 3% develop moderate to severe symptoms. Radiation colitis can be difficult to treat in some patients. There are several options for treating its symptoms. Argon plasma coagulation is the most common method of treating telangiectasias. Topical formaldehyde has also been used for distal telangiectasias. Obstructed defecation caused by radiation strictures (which are very fibrotic) usually can be treated successfully with stool softeners, colonic dilation, or steroid injection. Surgery should be avoided if possible because of its technical difficulty and the high incidence of postoperative complications such as anastomotic leak and fistula formation. New advances in radiation delivery techniques (eg, intensity-modulated radiation therapy) using specialized computer algorithms and medications such as amifostine may decrease the incidence of radiation colitis.

MeSH terms

  • Colitis / etiology*
  • Colitis / prevention & control
  • Colitis / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Radiation Injuries / prevention & control
  • Radiation Injuries / therapy*