Radiation enteritis is inflammation of the intestines that may occur in people undergoing radiation therapy. It is more common in people receiving radiotherapy on the abdomen, rectum, and pelvis.

Radiation therapy can cause damage and inflammation in healthy cells and tissues. This may lead to radiation enteritis, which can cause abdominal discomfort, nausea, and diarrhea.

Enteritis can be acute or chronic. Acute enteritis occurs while a person receives radiation therapy, while chronic enteritis may develop in some people after they finish cancer treatment. People with chronic enteritis may develop this condition months or years after they stop receiving treatment.

This article will review radiation enteritis, its symptoms, causes, and treatment.

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Radiation enteritis refers to the damage that radiation therapy can cause to the lining of the small and large bowels. Doctors may also refer to radiation enteritis with the following medical terms:

  • radiation colitis
  • radiation enteropathy
  • pelvic radiation disease
  • radiation mucositis
  • radiation proctitis

In most cases, radiation enteritis is acute. When people develop chronic enteritis, it typically occurs 3 months to 30 years after receiving radiotherapy treatment.

Symptoms and signs of radiation enteritis may include:

If a person experiences any of these symptoms while they are undergoing radiation therapy, they may want to speak with a doctor. A doctor can perform relevant exams to diagnose what is causing the symptoms and recommend a treatment plan.

Radiation enteritis is relatively common in people undergoing radiation therapy. According to research, about 90% of people receiving pelvic radiation develop it while receiving this type of cancer treatment.

Chronic radiation enteritis is less common. It develops in 5–55% of people after cancer treatment ends.

Radiotherapy can cause cell death and inflammation in the lining of the intestines. It may also trigger the activation of a gene that stimulates collagen and fibronectin genes, which can promote fibrosis (thickening of connective tissue) and other complications.

Radiation therapy also has an effect on gut flora. It reduces the diversity of gut bacteria, increasing the risk of radiation enteritis and worsening its symptoms.

Radiation enteritis is more likely to occur in people who have received high doses of radiation for cancer treatment to large areas of their intestines and abdomen. Receiving chemotherapy alongside radiation therapy can increase a person’s risk of developing this condition.

Doctors may recommend various treatment options for radiation enteritis, depending on its severity. These may include:

In severe cases, doctors may recommend surgery for people who have developed severe bleeding or an intestinal obstruction. They may also suggest that a person make changes to their diet to help reduce their symptoms and prevent further inflammation of the digestive system. This may include:

A nutritionist can recommend an appropriate diet to help manage radiation enteritis.

Receiving appropriate treatment can help manage radiation enteritis until it resolves.

However, some people with severe symptoms may need to undergo surgery to remove parts of their intestines if they have sustained severe injuries.

During appointments, people can ask questions to doctors about radiation therapy and the changes it may cause in their lives. Examples of questions to ask a doctor include:

  • What options are there for managing symptoms?
  • Will radiation enteritis go away, and how long will it take?
  • Is surgery a possibility?
  • What foods would it help to avoid?
  • What is the outlook?
  • What are some ways to help prevent abdominal pain?
  • What foods could it help to eat?

Radiation enteritis is the inflammation of the intestines that commonly occurs in people undergoing radiation therapy.

This condition can cause symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Treatment focuses on reducing symptoms until the inflammation resolves. In severe cases, people may have to undergo surgery to remove parts of their intestines.