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Diverticulitis

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Diverticulitis is a condition where parts of the bowel become inflamed or infected. The bowel is a muscular tube with a smooth wall that stool (poop) can pass along easily, helped by contractions of the gut muscles. As we age, our bowel can develop small outpouchings which are known as diverticula, and we think this is likely to be due to not eating enough fiber in our diet. Diverticula are very common and become more common with increasing age. This means that in the US about half of all people have at least one large bowel diverticula by the age of 50, and by the age of 80 about 70% of people have them.

In around three quarters of people with diverticula, there are no symptoms and they cause no harm. However, if these pockets get inflamed or infected – typically because of poop becoming trapped in them - this is known as diverticulitis and about 20% of people with diverticula will experience this at some time. People with a sudden flare of diverticulitis will suffer from constant abdominal pain, usually in the left lower side, that comes and goes but is usually worse after eating, and gets better after passing gas or stool. Other symptoms include constipation or diarrhea, mucus or blood in the stool, and a fever. You can become quite ill.

Diverticulitis is diagnosed by your doctor after examining you, or from what is seen on either a CT scan or a colonoscopy (a camera placed inside the rectum).

Occasionally, if you have no relevant symptoms or only mild tummy pain and occasional bleeding from the rectum, diverticula may be seen as an incidental finding if you have a scan for another reason, and this is of little significance.

Doctor’s advice

Can diet help?

A high fiber diet can help reduce the possibility of developing diverticula in the first place. If you do develop diverticula, fiber can help to bulk up your stool to keep it moving along, reducing the chance of diverticulitis developing.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

A high fiber diet can often ease symptoms. There are some high fiber supplements such as Fybogel available at pharmacies, which can help to increase the amount of soluble fiber intake, in addition to a well-balanced diet.

For pain relief, acetaminophen can help. It’s less likely to cause stomach upset than anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

How is diverticulitis treated?

If your attack of diverticulitis is more than mild, you may need strong painkillers and a course of antibiotic tablets, prescribed by your doctor. For a severe or prolonged episode, you may require hospital admission to be given intravenous fluids and antibiotics, sometimes with painkilling injections too. If you need to stay in the hospital, this is usually for a few days only.

What are the possible complications of diverticulitis?

Although uncommon, complications can occur with diverticulitis including the bowel becoming completely blocked (known as obstruction), an abscess forming in the affected area, a fistula (channel) developing to other abdominal organs, and – if the diverticula bursts – peritonitis, where there is a generalized abdominal infection. Surgery may be required to treat these complications.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have symptoms of diverticulitis, you should urgently see your doctor. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, especially pain in the left lower side, fever, a change in your bowel habits with either constipation or diarrhea, and mucus or blood in your poop.

Even if you know you have diverticula, always discuss any change of symptoms with your doctor and any change in your bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain or blood and mucus in your poop.

Am I fit for work?

Diverticulitis will usually leave you feeling too unwell for work.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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