Radiation enteritis is inflammation of the intestines that occurs after radiation therapy.

Radiation enteritis causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps in people receiving radiation aimed at the abdomen, pelvis or rectum. Radiation enteritis is most common in people receiving radiation therapy for cancer in the abdomen and pelvic areas.

For most people, radiation enteritis is temporary and the inflammation usually subsides several weeks after treatment ends. But for some, radiation enteritis may continue long after treatment ends or may develop months or years after treatment.

Chronic radiation enteritis can cause complications such as anemia and partial bowel obstruction.

Treatment typically focuses on relieving signs and symptoms until the inflammation heals. In severe cases, tube feeding or surgery to remove sections of the intestine may be necessary.

  • Teamwork. At Mayo Clinic, gastroenterologists, general surgeons and radiologists work as a multidisciplinary team to care for people with radiation enteritis. Other professionals are included as needed.
  • Experience. Mayo Clinic doctors have extensive experience diagnosing and treating radiation enteritis. Each year, about 100 people with radiation enteritis receive care at Mayo Clinic.
  • A full range of treatment options to consider. Mayo Clinic doctors will work with you to review all of your treatment options and choose the treatment that best suits your needs and goals.

    The range of treatments offered to people with radiation enteritis includes supportive care to treat signs and symptoms, surgery to remove a portion of the intestine, and a variety of options to improve nutrition while your intestine heals.

  • Comprehensive cancer center. Mayo Clinic Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, which recognizes scientific excellence and a multidisciplinary approach to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

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.

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Mayo Clinic doctors review your medical history and perform a physical exam in order to better understand your condition.

Additional tests and procedures may be used to understand the extent of your radiation enteritis, including:

  • Endoscopy. During an endoscopy, your doctor passes a long, thin tube (endoscope) down your throat and into your esophagus. The tube is equipped with a camera. Endoscopy allows your doctor to inspect your stomach and the beginning of your small intestine.
  • Colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, your doctor passes a long, thin tube through your rectum and into your colon. The tube is equipped with a camera. Colonoscopy allows your doctor to inspect your colon for abnormalities and areas of inflammation.
  • Capsule endoscopy. During a capsule endoscopy, you swallow a pill-sized camera that takes pictures as it passes through your digestive system. A capsule endoscopy allows your doctor to inspect your small intestine, which is difficult to access with other tests, such as endoscopy and colonoscopy.
  • Enteroscopy. During enteroscopy your doctor uses a camera-equipped scope that's designed to reach deeper into your small intestine to look for signs of radiation enteritis.
  • CT and MRI. These imaging tests may show changes in the small intestine that suggest radiation enteritis. CT and MRI are usually done before a capsule endoscopy.

Radiation enteritis is often temporary. Your signs and symptoms may subside in the weeks after your treatment ends. During this time, your doctor may recommend treatments to relieve your signs and symptoms. If your radiation enteritis persists, your doctor may recommend other treatments.

Treatment for temporary radiation enteritis signs and symptoms

If you experience signs and symptoms of radiation enteritis, your doctor may recommend:

  • Anti-diarrheal medications
  • Dietary changes, such as reducing your intake of dairy products, fatty foods and high-fiber foods
  • Pain medications to relieve pain of inflammation

Treatment for chronic radiation enteritis

Radiation enteritis that persists after treatment or that develops months or years after treatment is called chronic radiation enteritis. Treatment for chronic radiation enteritis is similar to treatments used for temporary radiation enteritis, but may also include:

  • Nutritional support. Inflammation in your small intestine may reduce your body's ability to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. Nutritional support in the form of tube feeding (home enteral nutrition) or infusions of nutrients into a vein (home parenteral nutrition) may help make sure you get the energy and nutrients you need.
  • Antibiotics. Inflammation caused by radiation may lead to a bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. This can occur if the bacteria that normally live in the large intestine grow in the small intestine. Antibiotics can control bacteria overgrowth.
  • Surgery. In rare cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the affected intestine or to construct a way for waste to avoid that section (intestinal bypass). Surgery is generally used when other alternatives are exhausted, since surgery carries a risk of complications.

At Mayo Clinic, specialists in gastroenterology care for people with radiation enteritis. Other experts are included as needed.

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.

At Mayo Clinic, specialists in gastroenterology care for people with radiation enteritis. Other experts are included as needed.

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.

At Mayo Clinic, specialists in gastroenterology care for people with radiation enteritis. Other experts are included as needed.

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 and scientists are studying new ways to prevent radiation enteritis, as well as to diagnose and treat radiation enteritis.

Cancer research is conducted in coordination with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. The Mayo Clinic Cancer Center receives funding from the National Cancer Institute and is designated as a comprehensive cancer center — recognition for an institution's scientific excellence and multidisciplinary resources focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Publications

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

Jul. 25, 2014