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Summary

Background

Smoking is the best-characterised environmental association of ulcerative colitis (UC). Smoking has been observed to exert protective effects on both the development and progression of UC.

Aims

To examine the association between UC and smoking, possible pathogenic mechanisms and the potential of nicotine as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of UC.

Methods

A literature search was conducted through MEDLINE, using the MeSH search terms ‘ulcerative colitis’ and ‘smoking’ or ‘nicotine’. Relevant articles were identified through manual review. The reference lists of these articles were reviewed to include further appropriate articles.

Results

Ulcerative colitis is less prevalent in smokers. Current smokers with a prior diagnosis of UC are more likely to exhibit milder disease than ex-smokers and nonsmokers. There is conflicting evidence for smokers having reduced rates of hospitalisation, colectomy and need for oral corticosteroids and immunosuppressants to manage their disease. Multiple potential active mediators in smoke may be responsible for these clinical effects, including nicotine and carbon monoxide, but the precise mechanism remains unknown. Nicotine has demonstrated variable efficacy in the induction of remission in UC when compared to placebo and conventional medicines. Despite this, the high frequency of adverse events limits its clinical significance.

Conclusions

Nicotine's application as a therapeutic treatment in ulcerative colitis is limited. Presently, it may be an option considered only in selected cases of acute ulcerative colitis refractory to conventional treatment options. This review also questions whether nicotine is the active component of smoking that modifies risk and inflammation in ulcerative colitis.