If you’ve been diagnosed with a fistula, you may have some questions about what it is, why you have it, and what can be done. Keep reading below for answers to some of the most common questions we receive about fistulas.
WHAT IS A FISTULA?
The definition of a fistula is an abnormal passageway that connects two organs or vessels that do not usually connect. The most common type of fistula is around the anus.
WHAT CAUSES A FISTULA?
Within the anus, there are glands that create fluid. Sometimes these can become blocked and infected, creating what is called an abscess. This is the most common cause of a fistula, although fistulas can sometimes be caused by other conditions as well, such as Crohn’s disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or cancer.
WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS OF A FISTULA?
Fistulas can be very embarrassing, as well as uncomfortable. Pain is a frequent symptom, as well as frequent abscesses, foul-smelling discharge, and painful bowel movements. Skin irritation can also develop due to infections and excess fluid being discharged.
HOW SERIOUS IS A FISTULA?
Fistulas can cause a lot of discomfort, and if left untreated, may cause serious complications. Some fistulas can cause a bacteria infection, which may result in sepsis, a dangerous condition that can lead to low blood pressure, organ damage or even death. Luckily there are many treatments available for fistulas so that more serious complications don’t occur.
HOW IS A FISTULA DIAGNOSED?
If you are noticing any symptoms of a fistula – abdominal pain, discharge, a change in your bowel habits, severe diarrhea – talk to your doctor right away. Diagnosing an external fistula is relatively simple since the doctor is able to see it. He or she may send any discharge that occurs to a lab for analysis, and may also perform blood tests to help confirm the diagnosis.
If the fistula is internal, diagnosis may be harder. Your doctor may perform an endoscope to see inside, or perform ultrasounds, CTs, or X-rays to find the fistula.
IS A FISTULA A SIGN OF CANCER?
An anal fistula is a very rare sign of cancer. However, if left untreated for a long time, a fistula may lead to cancer. A fistula may also develop as a result of radiation therapy.
CAN A FISTULA HEAL ON ITS OWN?
In some cases, fistulas may close up, but then reopen. Typically, fistulas do not heal on their own without treatment.
HOW IS A FISTULA TREATED?
There are different options when treating a fistula, depending on the severity. For small fistulas, your doctor may perform an in office procedure. A fistulotomy may be done to open and drain the fistula. Your doctor may also be able to use stitches to seal the fistula, allowing it to heal.
Larger fistulas will require surgery to close them properly. Post surgery, you may be prescribed pain killers, antibiotics to prevent infections, and stool softeners to make bowel movements easier while healing.
The healing process may take just a few days or weeks if the fistula was small, but larger fistulas can take a longer time to heal, and may even require additional surgeries. Be sure to keep the area clean, especially after bowel movements. Moist pads may help this process. Taking warm baths can also be soothing and can help the treated area clean.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a fistula, don’t wait to talk to your doctor. Seek treatment and learn the options available to you – treatment may be easier than you think, and in most every case, is better than letting it go untreated.