Radiation enteritis is a type of bowel inflammation that can occur when the intestines are exposed to radiation during cancer treatment. Many people who receive radiation treatment for tumors within the abdomen, such as colorectal cancers, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer or pancreatic cancer, experience some level of radiation enteritis. In fact, bowel upset is a common radiation therapy side effect. While it can be unpleasant, most of the time radiation enteritis does heal. Importantly, you can engage in self-care before and during abdominal radiation treatment to help your bowels cope better with the radiation dosage. What Causes Radiation Enteritis Radiation therapy for cancers inside the abdomen often involves using a machine to beam highly concentrated shafts of ionizing radiation energy at the internal tumor. To reach the tumor, the radiation passes through the skin and other organs, like the intestines. This incidental radiation exposure can damage or destroy small areas of healthy bowel tissue and disrupt bowel function. Usually these radiation enteritis lesions—the areas of bowel tissue damaged by the radiation beam—are small and gradually heal on their own. Healing can take several weeks after therapeutic radiation treatment ends. People who undergo unusually intense or prolonged radiation therapy may develop larger lesions that require more aggressive medical intervention. Radiation Enteritis Symptoms In general, if you experience any bowel upset after receiving abdominal or pelvic radiation therapy, it probably is due to radiation enteritis. Some of the more common symptoms of radiation enteritis include: Bowel urgency, with or without the ability to have a bowel movement Diarrhea or loose stools Loss of appetite or fear of eating because it might provoke an episode of diarrhea Nausea or vomiting Rectal pain or hemorrhoidal-type bleeding Stools that contain bright red blood or mucus If you experience bowel-related symptoms after radiation therapy, report them to your doctor as soon as possible; do not wait until your next appointment. Self-Care for Radiation Enteritis Anyone scheduled to undergo radiation treatment for an abdominal cancer should speak to their doctor about things to do at home to minimize the effects of possible radiation enteritis. Many people find relief by temporarily adopting a low-fiber diet and avoiding foods known to trigger bowel irritation including: Alcohol Caffeinated beverages and foods, such as coffee and chocolate Fried and processed foods, such as fast food and snack foods like potato chips High-fiber foods, including grains, some fresh fruits (such as unpeeled apples), dried fruits, and most raw vegetables Most dairy products Spicy foods and meals, like chili peppers and curries In addition to dietary modifications, you may find relief from radiation enteritis symptoms by: Drinking plenty of water to stay well-hydrated Eating several small meals per day instead of 2 to 3 large ones Resting to allow your body to heal Radiation Enteritis Treatment If you experience severe diarrhea or long-term bowel irritation due to radiation therapy, your doctor may suggest medical treatments that might include: Intravenous fluids or nutrition Medications to treat diarrhea and pain Other medications or supplements to treat deficiencies caused by the underlying cancer, such as enzyme supplements in case of pancreatic cancer Rectal foam treatment that contains steroids to reduce bowel inflammation In rare instances, the damaged portion of intestine must be surgically removed. This treatment usually is reserved for severe, chronic radiation enteritis. Fortunately, most cases of radiation enteritis clear up within three months of the final radiation treatment. Most people cannot avoid experiencing some diarrhea and intestinal upset during and after pelvic or abdominal radiation therapy. In the meantime, addressing some effects of radiation enteritis through self-care, dietary modifications, and treatment can help avoid long-term complications.