Diverticulosis: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention
What is diverticulosis?
The walls of your large intestine can become weak in certain spots. A poor diet and not exercising enough are two reasons it can happen, but most commonly, it's just a function of age. When this happens, small outpouchings can be created, these are called diverticula.
If this happens, you have diverticulosis. It usually happens in the colon, which is in the lower intestines.
They may sound alike, but there is a huge difference between diverticulosis—having diverticula, pouches in your intestine—and diverticulitis, which is an infection of diverticula. —Dr. Shria Kumar
It is more common in Western countries and in older adults. For most people, diverticulosis doesn’t create any symptoms or problems. But about 25% of people who get it will have some symptoms, most commonly bleeding or infection.
In some cases, the diverticular can become infected. This is called diverticulitis. That can lead to complications.
Most common symptoms
Most people don’t know they have diverticulosis. It never causes them trouble. Their doctor just notices the pouches during a routine colonoscopy or imaging of the abdomen (like an MRI or CT scan).
But 25% of people with diverticulosis do have symptoms. Usually, it’s blood in their stool. Or if they develop diverticulitis, it can cause fever, chills, and pain in their abdomen.
- If it’s infected, you'll get fever, chills, and pain in the abdomen
What makes you more likely to have diverticulosis?
- Living in the Western world (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South America)
- Getting older
- A diet high in red meat
- Lack of exercise
- Cigarette smoking
- Having a family history of diverticulosis
Most people in the US above age 65 have diverticulosis. And for most, it causes absolutely no symptoms or problems whatsoever. So just because you are told you have diverticula does not mean you should expect to have any symptoms from it. —Dr. Kumar
If your stool is bloody or black, call your primary care doctor right away. Bloody stool can be caused by a number of reasons, and you need to get a proper diagnosis.
Also call your doctor if you get a fever along with pain in your abdomen. It could be a sign of an infection.
What is diverticulitis pain like?
Diverticulitis can be very painful. It causes pain, usually in one area of the abdomen, and can be accompanied by fevers or chills, nausea, and fatigue.
What is the main cause of diverticulosis?
It’s unclear what causes diverticulosis. When the wall of the intestines is weakened, pouches (diverticula) form. Then they bulge, sometimes causing symptoms or becoming infected. There’s some evidence that a “Western diet,” or a diet low in fiber contributes to the problem.
If you haven’t had a recent colonoscopy, but have had an episode of diverticulitis, ask your doctor if you need a colonoscopy. You want to make sure the infection was not due to something else (inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, etc). —Dr. Kumar
What is the best treatment for diverticulosis?
There is no treatment for diverticulosis. But if you are having issues related to diverticula (bleeding or infection), those will be treated.
If you have blood in your stool, you may be admitted to a hospital depending on the severity of your bleeding and your overall health profile and condition. There, they will watch your blood counts, and give you more blood if needed.
If you have an infection, you will need antibiotics. In rare cases or with repeated episodes, diverticulosis may require surgery to remove the affected part of the colon.
Do your best to reduce your risk factors. Lose weight if you’re overweight, exercise regularly, and quit smoking. It's not clear that a diet high in fiber will reduce the risk. But let your doctor know if you don’t have daily bowel movements.