Radiation enteritis is a complication of cancer treatment. It occurs when the small bowel becomes inflamed after radiation therapy. Signs and symptoms include a loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhea, which usually cease after radiation therapy ends. But radiation enteritis can persist in some people. Special diets and medication can help control the symptoms and improve your quality of life. Surgery is occasionally needed.

  • Experience. Each year, Mayo Clinic doctors diagnose and treat hundreds of people with radiation enteritis.
  • Expertise. People with radiation enteritis sometimes need nutritional support (tube feeding) at home. Mayo has comprehensive home nutritional support programs. Mayo doctors also have experience weaning some people off liquid nutrition.

About

Radiation enteritis is experienced by most people who have radiation therapy for cancer in the abdomen, rectum or pelvis. For most people the inflammation eases within three weeks of completing radiation treatment (acute radiation enteritis). But 5 to 15 percent of people develop ongoing problems (chronic radiation enteritis).

Chronic radiation enteritis can develop in people who had no symptoms or only mild symptoms during radiation treatment. The factors that may affect long-term radiation injury include the radiation dosage and whether you previously had abdominal surgery, vascular disease or chemotherapy. Chronic radiation enteritis is also more common in women and in older and thinner people.

Radiation enteritis can reduce the small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients, resulting in diarrhea and malnourishment. For some people the movement of food through the digestive system may be slowed, resulting in nausea, vomiting and weight loss.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of radiation enteritis include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Straining to have a bowel movement
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Exhaustion

Resources

Below are some helpful Internet resources on this topic. Mayo Clinic does not own or control any of these sites and is not responsible for their content. Inclusion of these sites does not imply endorsement by Mayo Clinic.

Oley Foundation, Inc.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., ranks #1 for digestive disorders in the U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals rankings. Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., is ranked among the Best Hospitals and Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., is ranked high performing for digestive disorders by U.S. News & World Report.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., are ranked among the Best Hospitals for cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., is ranked high performing for cancer by U.S. News & World Report.

Specialists in gastroenterology care for adults who have radiation enteritis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

Specialists in gastroenterology care for adults who have radiation enteritis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

Specialists in gastroenterology care for people who have radiation enteritis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic doctors start with a complete medical history and physical examination. This exam may be enough to diagnose radiation enteritis.

Mayo doctors also use these tests to look for intestinal damage:

  • Endoscopy. This test inspects the upper part of the small intestine.
  • Colonoscopy. This test inspects your lower small intestine.
  • Capsule endoscopy. You swallow a small pill that contains a video camera, which transmits images of your small intestine to a recording device. Capsule endoscopy can image problems in the small intestine's lining that aren't visible in other tests.
  • CT enterography. Mayo researchers helped develop this noninvasive test, which is more sensitive than conventional imaging for finding abnormalities in the intestines.

Read more about endoscopy and colonoscopy.

Treatment focuses on managing your symptoms.

Acute radiation enteritis

If you experience symptoms during radiation therapy, Mayo doctors may reduce or change the radiation dosage. Other options include:

  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Anticholinergic medication to ease bowel spasms
  • Dietary changes (reducing consumption of milk and fatty and fiber-rich foods)
  • Rest

Chronic radiation enteritis

If you experience long-term symptoms, Mayo doctors usually recommend the same medications and dietary changes used to treat acute radiation enteritis. For some people, careful control of diet may ease symptoms.

Other options include:

  • Nutritional support, either tube feeding into the stomach or small intestine (enteral nutrition) or tube feeding into a vein (total parenteral nutrition) at home. Mayo Clinic has a comprehensive home tube feeding program. Care plans are regularly reassessed to ensure your nutritional needs are met. A Mayo study suggests that under the careful supervision of care providers, some people may be weaned off liquid nutrition.
  • Surgery is occasionally needed to remove sections of abnormal bowel.

See a list of publications by Mayo doctors on radiation enteritis on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Nov. 20, 2012