Understanding Fistulas: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Fistulas are a medical condition that affects millions of people worldwide. The word “fistula” means an abnormal connection or passageway between two body parts that are not normally connected. This can cause a range of symptoms, including pain, discharge, swelling, and fever. While fistulas can occur in different parts of the body, some types are more common than others. For example, anal fistulas affect up to 80% of people with Crohn’s disease, while vesicovaginal fistulas are a common complication of childbirth in developing countries. In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for fistulas. Whether you have been diagnosed with a fistula or want to learn more about this condition, this guide will provide you with valuable insights into improving your quality of life.

What is a Fistula?

A fistula is an abnormal connection that forms between two organs or vessels that aren’t supposed to be connected. This condition can occur in various parts of the body, such as the digestive system, urinary tract, reproductive system, and circulatory system.

Fistulas can be categorized into different types based on their location and cause. The most common types of fistulas include anal fistulas, vesicovaginal fistulas, arteriovenous fistulas, rectovaginal fistulas, and gastrointestinal fistulas.

Anal fistulas are the most prevalent type of fistula and occur when an abscess (a collection of pus) in the anus isn’t treated properly and develops into a tunnel-like structure that connects the inside of the anus to the skin outside. Vesicovaginal fistulas are another type of fistula that develops between the bladder and vagina, causing urinary incontinence. Arteriovenous fistulas are abnormal connections between arteries and veins, which can lead to high blood pressure and other complications. Rectovaginal fistulas are fistulas that occur between the rectum and vagina, while gastrointestinal fistulas connect the intestines to other organs.

The causes of fistulas vary, but they typically involve tissue damage, inflammation, or infection. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), cancer, radiation therapy, trauma, infection, surgery complications, and childbirth are some of the common causes of fistulas. For example, people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (types of IBD) may develop fistulas due to the inflammation and tissue damage in their digestive system. Women who have prolonged or obstructed labor during childbirth may also develop vesicovaginal fistulas due to the pressure and trauma on their bladder.

In conclusion, fistulas are abnormal connections that can occur in various parts of the body, causing pain, discomfort, and other complications. Understanding the different types and causes of fistulas can help with diagnosis and treatment, which may involve medications, surgery, or lifestyle changes. If you suspect that you have a fistula, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly to prevent further complications and improve your quality of life.

Types of Fistula

Types of Fistula

A fistula is an abnormal connection or passageway between two organs, vessels, or tissues that are not normally connected. There are several types of fistulas, each with their unique causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

Anal Fistula

An anal fistula is a small tunnel that forms between the skin near the anus and the rectal canal. It usually develops as a result of an infection in an anal gland. Common symptoms of an anal fistula include pain, swelling, tenderness, and drainage of pus or blood from the affected area. Treatment for an anal fistula depends on its severity but often involves surgery to repair the tunnel and remove any infected tissue.

Vesicovaginal Fistula

A vesicovaginal fistula is an abnormal passageway that forms between the bladder and the vagina. It can occur due to multiple reasons such as childbirth, pelvic surgery, pelvic trauma, radiation therapy, or cancer. Symptoms of vesicovaginal fistula include urinary incontinence, recurrent urinary tract infections, and vaginal discharge. Treatment may involve surgery to repair the fistula and restore the normal function of the bladder.

Arteriovenous Fistula

An arteriovenous fistula is an abnormal connection between an artery and a vein. It can occur congenitally or due to injury, surgery, or chronic conditions like hypertension or diabetes. The most common symptom of an arteriovenous fistula is a pulsatile mass over the affected area. Treatment may involve surgery to repair the fistula and restore the normal flow of blood in the affected vessels.

Rectovaginal Fistula

A rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal connection that forms between the rectum and the vagina. It can develop due to multiple reasons such as childbirth, Crohn’s disease, pelvic surgery, or radiation therapy. Common symptoms of rectovaginal fistula include fecal incontinence, vaginal discharge, and recurring urinary tract infections. Treatment may involve surgery to repair the fistula and restore normal bowel and bladder function.

Gastrointestinal Fistula

A gastrointestinal fistula is an abnormal connection that forms between the intestine and other organs, vessels, or tissues. It can occur due to multiple reasons such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, radiation therapy, trauma, or surgery complications. Common symptoms of gastrointestinal fistula include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, and malnutrition. Treatment may involve surgery to repair the fistula and manage any underlying conditions contributing to its development.

In conclusion, knowing the types of fistulas, their causes, and symptoms is crucial for their early diagnosis and effective management. If you experience any signs or symptoms of a fistula, seek medical attention immediately to prevent any possible complications.

Causes of Fistula

Fistulas are abnormal connections between two body parts that do not normally connect. They can occur anywhere in the body, and their causes vary widely. In this section, we will discuss the common causes of fistulas in more detail.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): IBD is a group of conditions that cause inflammation in the digestive tract. It includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Fistulas are a common complication of IBD, particularly in the anus or rectum. The inflammation caused by IBD can lead to the formation of tunnels or tracts between the intestines and other organs or tissues.

Cancer: Certain types of cancer, such as colon, bladder, and cervical cancer, can also cause fistulas. This is because tumors can grow into nearby organs, causing abnormal connections. In some cases, radiation therapy used to treat cancer can also cause fistulas.

Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells. However, it can also damage healthy tissue, leading to fistulas. Radiation-induced fistulas can occur in any part of the body that has been treated with radiation.

Trauma: Trauma to the body, such as from surgery or accidents, can also cause fistulas. For example, if the urethra is damaged during childbirth, it can lead to the formation of a vesicovaginal fistula. Similarly, if the rectum is injured during surgery, it can result in a rectovaginal fistula.

Infection: Fistulas can also be caused by infections, particularly those that are chronic or difficult to treat. For example, tuberculosis can cause fistulas between the lungs or between the lungs and other organs. Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause fistulas in the reproductive system.

Surgery complications: Fistulas can sometimes develop after surgery, particularly if the surgery was performed in an area with many blood vessels. In addition, certain types of surgery, such as those involving the digestive tract or urinary system, are more likely to result in fistulas.

Childbirth: Childbirth can also cause fistulas, particularly in developing countries where access to medical care is limited. When a baby’s head becomes stuck during delivery, it can cause damage to the tissues in the birth canal, leading to a fistula between the vagina and rectum or bladder.

In conclusion, there are several causes of fistulas, including inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, radiation therapy, trauma, infection, surgery complications, and childbirth. Understanding these causes can help individuals take steps to prevent fistulas from occurring and seek prompt medical attention if they do develop.

Symptoms of Fistula

Symptoms of Fistula

Fistulas can cause a variety of symptoms that vary depending on the location and severity of the condition. Here are some common symptoms of fistula:


One of the most common symptoms associated with fistula is pain. The pain may be constant or intermittent, and it can range from mild to severe. The intensity of the pain can also vary depending on the type of fistula.

For example, patients with anal fistula may experience pain during bowel movements, while those with vesicovaginal fistula may experience pain during sexual intercourse.


Another symptom of fistula is discharge. This can range from a clear fluid to pus-like material and can have a foul odor. The amount of discharge can also vary depending on the type and location of the fistula.

Patients with gastrointestinal fistula may experience diarrhea or fecal incontinence, while those with vesicovaginal fistula may experience urine leakage.

Redness and Swelling

Fistulas can lead to redness and swelling around the affected area. In some cases, the skin may become irritated, itchy, or tender. Patients with rectovaginal fistula may experience redness and swelling around the vaginal area, while those with arteriovenous fistula may experience swelling in the legs or arms.


Patients with more severe cases of fistula may experience a fever. This is often a sign of infection and can occur when bacteria enter the body through the opening created by the fistula. Patients with inflammatory bowel disease or cancer may be at a higher risk of developing fistula-related infections.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention. Early detection and treatment can improve your chances of a successful recovery.

Diagnosing Fistula

Diagnosing Fistula

Fistulas can be challenging to diagnose as their symptoms can often overlap with other medical conditions. However, early diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment and management of the condition. A combination of different diagnostic tests is usually required to confirm the presence of fistulas.

Physical Examination

The first step in diagnosing a fistula is a physical examination by a healthcare professional. During this examination, the healthcare provider will look for signs of redness, swelling, or discharge around the affected area. The healthcare provider may also ask about the patient’s medical history to identify any underlying conditions that may contribute to the development of fistulas.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are an essential tool for diagnosing fistulas. Different types of imaging tests can help to visualize the internal structures and detect the presence of fistulas. Some common imaging tests used for diagnosing fistulas include:

  • Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to produce images of the inside of the body. It is commonly used to diagnose anal fistulas.

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of the body. It is a non-invasive and painless method of diagnosing fistulas.


A sigmoidoscopy is a procedure that involves inserting a flexible tube with a camera into the rectum to examine the lower part of the colon. This procedure is commonly used to diagnose rectovaginal fistulas.


A colonoscopy is a more invasive procedure that involves inserting a flexible tube with a camera into the rectum to examine the entire colon. This procedure is commonly used to diagnose gastrointestinal fistulas.

In summary, diagnosing a fistula requires a combination of physical examinations and imaging tests such as ultrasound or MRI. Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are also commonly used to diagnose rectovaginal and gastrointestinal fistulas, respectively. If you suspect that you have a fistula, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider immediately as early diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment and management.

Treating Fistula



Fistulas are often treated with medications in combination with other treatment options, such as surgery or lifestyle changes. The type of medication prescribed depends on the underlying cause of the fistula and the severity of the symptoms.


Antibiotics are commonly used to treat infections that may be causing or contributing to the development of a fistula. These medications work by killing or inhibiting the growth of bacteria. For example, if a patient has an anal fistula that is infected, antibiotics may be prescribed to clear up the infection before surgery. Some examples of antibiotics that may be used include amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, and metronidazole.


Immunomodulators are medications that help regulate the immune system. They are often used to treat autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are common causes of gastrointestinal fistulas. These medications work by suppressing the immune system to reduce inflammation. Examples of immunomodulators that may be used include azathioprine, mercaptopurine, and methotrexate.


Biologics are a type of medication made using living cells and proteins. They are often used to treat autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as other conditions that cause inflammation. Biologics work by blocking specific proteins in the body that are involved in the immune response. Examples of biologics that may be used include adalimumab, infliximab, and vedolizumab.

It’s important to note that while medications can be effective in treating fistulas, they may also have side effects. Patients should always talk to their doctor about the potential risks and benefits of any medication before starting treatment. Additionally, medications alone may not be enough to fully treat a fistula, and other treatment options may be necessary.



Surgery is often necessary to treat a fistula, especially if other treatments have failed. There are different types of surgeries that can be performed depending on the location and severity of the fistula.


Fistulotomy is a common surgical procedure used to treat anal fistulas. It involves cutting the fistula tract and allowing it to heal naturally from the inside out. This procedure has a high success rate and is relatively simple to perform. However, it can be painful during the recovery period and there is a risk of incontinence.

Seton Placement

Seton placement involves inserting a special type of thread called a seton into the fistula tract. The seton is left in place for several weeks or months to gradually cut through the tissue and drain the fistula. This procedure is less invasive than fistulotomy and is often used for more complex fistulas or for patients who are at high risk of incontinence.

Fibrin Glue

Fibrin glue is a newer treatment option for fistulas that involves injecting a special type of glue into the fistula tract to seal it. This procedure is minimally invasive and has a lower risk of complications compared to other surgical options. However, it may not be suitable for all types of fistulas and its long-term effectiveness is still being studied.

Advancement Flap

Advancement flap is a surgical procedure that involves moving healthy tissue from one part of the body to another to cover the fistula opening. This procedure is often used for rectovaginal fistulas and has a high success rate. However, it is a more complex procedure that requires a longer recovery time and has a higher risk of complications.

In conclusion, surgery is an effective treatment option for fistulas, but it should only be considered after other treatments have been tried. Patients should discuss the benefits and risks of each surgical option with their doctor to determine the best course of action for their individual case.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to medication and surgery, lifestyle changes can also play a crucial role in managing fistulas. Here are some of the ways you can make positive changes to your lifestyle:

Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is essential for healing and preventing fistulas. You should focus on a nutrient-rich diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Additionally, it’s important to stay hydrated and avoid foods that can aggravate your symptoms. For instance, if you have an anal fistula, you may want to avoid foods that are high in fiber or spicy foods that can irritate your anus.


Exercise is another important aspect of maintaining a healthy lifestyle when living with a fistula. Regular physical activity can help improve circulation, boost your immune system, and reduce stress levels. However, it’s important to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you’ve had recent surgery or are experiencing severe pain.

Stress Management

Stress can exacerbate your symptoms and lead to further complications, so learning how to manage stress is crucial. There are many techniques you can use to reduce stress, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or tai chi. Additionally, therapy or counseling can help you manage anxiety and depression related to your condition.

Overall, making lifestyle changes can be challenging, but they are necessary to manage and prevent fistulas. By adopting healthy habits like eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and managing stress, you can improve your quality of life and find relief from your symptoms.



Prevention is always better than cure. While fistulas can be treated, it’s often a complicated process that involves extensive medical intervention. The good news is that most fistulas can be prevented with some simple lifestyle modifications.

Proper Hygiene

Maintaining proper hygiene is critical to preventing fistulas. Keeping the affected area clean and dry can help prevent infections that lead to the formation of fistulas. Washing the genital area with soap and water after sexual activity can also help reduce the risk of developing a vesicovaginal or rectovaginal fistula.

Quitting Smoking

Smoking is not only hazardous to your health, but it can also increase the risk of developing fistulas. Nicotine in cigarettes can damage tissues and cause blood vessels to narrow, leading to poor healing and increased risk of infection. Smoking can also compromise the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections.

Treating Underlying Conditions

Fistulas can develop as a complication of other underlying conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, radiation therapy, trauma, and surgery complications. Treating these underlying conditions effectively can prevent the formation of fistulas. For example, managing the symptoms of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can reduce inflammation in the intestines, decreasing the likelihood of fistula formation.

In conclusion, prevention is key when it comes to avoiding fistulas. By maintaining good hygiene practices, quitting smoking, and treating underlying conditions, you can significantly reduce the risk of developing a fistula. It’s important to consult your doctor if you suspect you have a fistula or if you experience any unusual symptoms.
Fistulas can be a distressing and painful condition, but there are several treatment options available to manage the symptoms. Understanding the causes and symptoms of fistulas is essential in order to receive timely and effective treatment. By making lifestyle changes such as maintaining proper hygiene, quitting smoking, and managing underlying conditions, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent fistulas from occurring. If you experience symptoms of fistulas, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly to avoid further complications. While living with a fistula can be challenging, there is hope for improved quality of life through early diagnosis and treatment.

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