What is Radiation Enteritis?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 21 August 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
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Radiation therapy is a mainstay of abdominal and rectal cancer treatment. The procedure that is designed to ablate cancerous cells can, however, damage nearby healthy cells as well. Radiation enteritis occurs when medical radiation leads to intestinal inflammation and irritation. The condition is usually an acute consequence of frequent radiation treatments, and symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain subside once the course of cancer treatments is complete. Radiation enteritis can occasionally become a chronic condition that can cause discomfort for life.

Acute radiation enteritis can begin at any point during a course of radiation treatment. In its early stages, enteritis usually results in stomach upset, frequent abdominal cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. A person may have bouts of nausea, vomiting, and dehydration as well. Chronic radiation enteritis tends to cause similar symptoms, though pain tends to be more constant and many people experience significant weight loss. Without treatment, it is possible for intestinal tissue to tear and leave the body susceptible to potentially life-threatening hemorrhages and infections.


A cancer patient who experiences gastrointestinal problems should consult his or her doctor to receive a thorough diagnostic screening procedure. A physician may decide to take an abdominal computerized tomography scan to check for signs of inflammation. A colonoscopy procedure, in which a tiny camera is inserted into the small intestine, can be performed to allow a specialist to get a closer look at the bowels and extract a small tissue sample for laboratory analysis. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor can determine the most appropriate means of treating radiation enteritis.

Treatment for acute radiation enteritis is usually focused on relieving symptoms. A patient is typically instructed to get plenty of rest and take anti-diarrheal and anti-inflammatory drugs. Doctors often prescribe specific diet plans for their patients that promote increased fiber intake while eliminating lactose, caffeine, and spicy foods. By following doctors' orders and maintaining an appropriate diet, a patient usually begins feeling better within about one month.

Chronic radiation enteritis is more difficult to treat, and the condition may not respond to dietary changes or anti-inflammatory drugs. Doctors try to avoid surgery and focus their efforts on relieving symptoms with medication whenever possible. If surgery is the only option, a specialist can attempt to repair or replace damaged intestinal pathways through an invasive procedure. A patient may need to be hospitalized for several days or weeks following surgery so doctors can monitor recovery.



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