Conventional wisdom dictates that ulcerative colitis affects contiguous areas of the colon and is most severe in the rectum, and that the finding of rectal sparing or patchy involvement should raise suspicions of Crohn's disease. We and others have noted occasional rectal sparing and patchy involvement in patients with ulcerative colitis. Therefore, we prospectively studied the prevalence of patchiness, including rectal sparing, in treated cases of ulcerative colitis. Consecutive patients with longstanding ulcerative colitis were studied. The left colon was divided into three zones for scoring degree of activity, and biopsy specimens from each zone were graded for histologic activity by a blinded observer. Patchiness by endoscopy or histology was defined as (1) frank rectal sparing (normal appearance endoscopically; absence of inflammation of the lamina propria and crypts histologically); (2) areas of greater inflammation proximally than distally; or (3) discrete areas of patchiness endoscopically within any one zone. Of 39 patients evaluated, 17 (44%) had endoscopic evidence of patchiness, including 5 (13%) with rectal sparing. Thirteen (33%) had histologic evidence of patchiness, including 6 (15%) with rectal sparing. Both endoscopic and histologic patchiness were seen in 9 patients (23%). The patchy and nonpatchy groups did not differ in regard to the use of rectal therapy. In patients with treated ulcerative colitis, the finding of rectal sparing or patchiness should not necessarily indicate a change in the diagnosis to Crohn's disease.