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The common condition you may never have heard of: what is diverticulitis and how do you prevent it?

Senior woman with pain
The most noticeable symptom is pain, usually on the lower left side of the abdomen,

Have you ever heard of a diverticula? Did you know that certain age groups have a 50 percent chance of developing diverticulosis?

A diverticula is a small pocket or pouch that forms in the wall of the large intestine or colon. They usually develop when naturally weak places in the colon give way under pressure, causing marble-sized pouches to protrude through the colon wall.

This process is called diverticulosis and for most people, it won’t cause any symptoms or complications.

However, when those diverticulum become infected or inflamed, it becomes known as diverticulitis and can be far more serious and uncomfortable for the person experiencing it.

What are the symptoms of diverticulitis?

The most noticeable symptom is pain, usually on the lower left side of the abdomen, although people of Asian descent are more likely to experience the pain on the right side of the abdomen for reasons we don’t fully understand yet.

Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, abdominal tenderness, fever, constipation or diarrhea, shivering, and, occasionally, rectal bleeding.

The pain from diverticulitis is constant, lasting for days or until the condition is treated, and is generally sharp and progressive. However, different people will experience different symptoms.

In about one in four cases, people with diverticulitis will experience complications. These can include abscesses which occur when pus collects in the pouch, blockages in the colon, or peritonitis.

Peritonitis occurs when the infected or inflamed pouch ruptures and spills intestinal contents into your abdominal cavity. It is a medical emergency and requires immediate care.

What causes diverticulitis?

There are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of someone developing diverticulitis. Ageing is the most significant, with the incidence rate increasing significantly as we grow older.

There are a range of general lifestyle factors that can also increase your risk of developing diverticulitis, including obesity, smoking, lack of exercise and a diet high in animal fats and low in fibre.

Finally, certain medications can also increase the risk, so talk to your GP if you’re concerned.

How can I prevent diverticulitis?

The best way to prevent diverticulitis is to focus on eating a healthy diet that’s high in fibre. High fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains soften waste and help it pass more quickly through the colon.

Whole foods with plenty of fibre.

How is diverticulitis treated?

Caught early, diverticulitis can be treated with antibiotics, diet and over-the-counter pain medicine. You may also be put on a liquid diet while your bowel heals. If left untreated, diverticulitis can require surgery to remove the infected pouches. If you’re experiencing abdominal pain or other symptoms, visit your GP to get it checked out.

Is there a link to bowel cancer?

There is no proven link between bowel cancer and diverticular disease. However, diverticular disease can make the colon more rigid, which can make the process of diagnosing bowel cancer through colonoscopy more challenging.

Last updated: 1 March 2019