Background: Ulcerative colitis is largely a disease of nonsmokers. Because anecdotal reports suggest that smoking and nicotine may improve the symptoms of the disease, we examined the effect of nicotine as a supplemental treatment for ulcerative colitis.
Methods: We treated 72 patients with active ulcerative colitis with either transdermal nicotine patches or placebo patches for six weeks in a randomized, double-blind study. Incremental doses of nicotine were given; most patients tolerated doses of 15 to 25 mg per 24 hours. All the patients had been taking mesalamine, and 12 were receiving low doses of glucocorticoids; these medications were continued without change during the study. Clinical, sigmoidoscopic, and histologic assessments were made at base line and at the end of the study; symptoms were recorded daily on a diary card, and the clinician made a global assessment. Side effects and plasma nicotine and cotinine concentrations were monitored throughout the study.
Results: Seventeen of the 35 patients in the nicotine group had complete remissions, as compared with 9 of the 37 patients in the placebo group (P = 0.03). The patients in the nicotine group had greater improvement in the global clinical grade of colitis (P < 0.001) and the histologic grade (P = 0.03), lower stool frequency (a difference of 1.6 stools daily; P = 0.008), less abdominal pain (P = 0.05), and less fecal urgency (P = 0.009). More patients in the nicotine group had side effects (23, vs. 11 in the placebo group; P = 0.002), the most common of which were nausea, lightheadedness, headache, and sleep disturbance. Withdrawals due to ineffective therapy were more common in the placebo group (3 vs. 8, P = 0.12).
Conclusions: The addition of transdermal nicotine to conventional maintenance therapy improves symptoms in patients with ulcerative colitis.