About two-thirds of patients with ulcerative colitis have an inflammatory involvement distal to the splenic flexure, and therefore may be effectively treated with topical treatment, allowing the delivery of the active drug directly to the site of inflammation and limiting systemic absorption and potential side-effects. Topical aminosalicylate therapy is the most effective approach, and most patients will benefit hugely, provided that the formulation reaches the upper extent of the disease. Therefore, the choice of topical preparation should be based on the proximal extent of the disease and on patient preference. Oral aminosalicylates are less effective than topical therapies; however, a combination of oral and topical aminosalicylates can be successful in refractory patients. Alternatives to aminosalicylates are the new glucocorticoids, budesonide and beclometasone dipropionate, either as enemas or oral formulations (only beclometasone dipropionate). A combination of oral or rectal new glucocorticoids with rectal aminosalicylates should be considered in patients refractory to either approach. When these measures fail, treatment with oral glucocorticoids is necessary. An intensive intravenous steroid regimen is also helpful for patients refractory to oral steroids. Alternative treatments include short-chain fatty acid enemas, nicotine enemas and patches, acetarsol suppositories, ciclosporin enemas and epidermal growth factor enemas. Several factors potentially having a negative impact on therapeutic response include concurrent enteric pathogens, coexistent irritable bowel syndrome, patient nonadherence to therapy, inadequate dosing and duration of therapy, and proximal progression of the disease. Surgical colectomy may be required in those rare patients refractory or intolerant to pharmacotherapy.