IBS is one of the most common problems of the digestive system – about two in 10 people in the UK have IBS and it’s twice as common in women than men.
IBS can develop at any age, but most people have their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 35.
Most people with IBS find their symptoms an occasional nuisance but don't need to see a doctor. However, for some people, the condition seriously affects their quality of life. If you find it difficult to cope with your symptoms, see your GP.
Symptoms of IBS include the following.
These symptoms may come and go – you may not have any symptoms for months and then have a sudden flare-up.
Other symptoms you may get if you have IBS include:
These symptoms may be caused by problems other than IBS. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.
The exact reasons why you may develop IBS aren’t fully understood at present. It may be a combination of:
You may find that psychological factors, such as stress, may trigger your symptoms. Your symptoms may also get worse after eating certain foods, for example fatty foods.
Antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (eg Nurofen) and diclofenac (eg Voltarol), can also make your symptoms worse.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will also ask about your medical history.
Your GP will ask you about your pain, when it comes on and what makes it better or worse. He or she will also ask about your bowel movements, such as how often you open your bowels, how easy it is to go, what your faeces look like and if it has blood or mucus in it. There is no single test to confirm IBS therefore your GP may ask you to have some further tests, such as blood tests, to rule out other conditions.
If you have typical IBS symptoms, it's unlikely you will need further tests. However, your GP may refer you for further tests if your symptoms may be linked to more serious bowel conditions. These symptoms may include:
If your GP thinks that your IBS may be caused by an infection, you will be asked to give a sample of your faeces – also called a stool sample. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing.
Although there is no cure for IBS, there are treatments that can help to improve your symptoms. These include making changes to your lifestyle, taking medicines and psychological treatments. With the help of your GP, you can decide which is best for you.
For most people with IBS, making some lifestyle changes is the best way to improve your symptoms.
The following general advice about your diet may help.
You may find it helpful to keep a food diary for two to four weeks to see if certain foods cause your symptoms. Always speak to your GP before changing your diet as advice may differ depending on your symptoms. If certain foods still seem to bring on your symptoms after trying this diet advice, it may help to see a dietitian.
Regular exercise is a good way to help reduce your symptoms. It helps keep your bowel movements regular and reduces stress. Aim to do a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, at least five times a week.
If your symptoms are noticeably triggered by stress, try learning stress management or relaxation techniques.
If these self-help treatments don't work, see your GP for advice. He or she can help you identify factors that may be making your IBS worse, and suggest other treatments.
There are several over-the-counter medicines available from your pharmacist that can relieve some of your symptoms of IBS.
Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Your GP may prescribe you medicines for IBS. These include prescription-only versions of the medicines mentioned above. Your GP may also prescribe you a low-dose antidepressant as this can reduce the pain of IBS, even if you're not depressed.
If your symptoms don't improve after a year of treatment, your GP may consider referring you for psychological treatment.
Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy or psychotherapy can help relieve the symptoms of IBS. These are often useful for people who have personal difficulties to deal with. Your GP can refer you to a suitable therapist.
Probiotics are a food supplement. They contain live bacteria and yeasts that can be helpful in restoring the balance of bacteria in your gut. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find them helpful in controlling their symptoms.
Probiotics are food supplements that contain live bacteria and yeasts. People often think of bacteria as harmful but there are many good bacteria that live in and on your body that help keep you healthy. This is especially so in your gut. Good bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract may prevent harmful organisms from growing in your bowel or entering your body through your intestine. Some people think that taking probiotics helps to keep the amounts of ‘good bacteria’ in your gut even and keep it working efficiently.
You can buy probiotics as food supplements (capsules or tablets) from your pharmacist or health food shops. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your supplements and follow the recommended dosage. You can also buy probiotics as yogurts or drinks (eg Danone, Activa or Actimel).
Research into the effectiveness of probiotics in treating IBS has produced conflicting results. Some studies have found that they do help relieve symptoms of IBS, whereas others have found that they don't. Take probiotics for a trial period of four weeks to see if they help with your symptoms. If they make no difference to your symptoms after this time, either stop taking them or try a different brand. There is no evidence that they can do any harm.
If you have any questions or concerns about probiotics or IBS, talk to your GP.
Yes, after a bout of food poisoning (gastroenteritis) there is a risk of developing IBS, particularly if it’s caused by certain bacteria.
Gastroenteritis is inflammation of your stomach and intestines, which is caused by an infection. In the UK, about two in 10 people get gastroenteritis each year.
There are several different types of infection that cause gastroenteritis, for example viruses, bacteria or parasites. It's thought that bacterial gastroenteritis, in particular, puts you at risk of developing IBS. The most common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis is food poisoning, specifically:
Around two in 10 people have symptoms of IBS for the first time after having gastroenteritis.
If you have any question or concerns about IBS or gastroenteritis, talk to your GP.
Complementary medicines aren't recommended to treat symptoms of IBS.
Some research has suggested that complementary therapies, such as relaxation techniques, biofeedback and herbal medicines, may be helpful in controlling symptoms. However, the evidence is limited and more research is needed to be certain of their effectiveness, although the same could be said of many approaches to the treatment of IBS.
If you have any questions or concerns about complementary therapies and IBS, talk to your GP.
Children with IBS do sometimes find that their symptoms can interfere with school. However, by keeping your child's teachers informed about his or her condition and how it affects them, you may be able to keep this disruption to a minimum.
Having a child with IBS can be difficult, especially if his or her symptoms are bad enough to interfere with school. However, there are things you can do as a parent to make things easier for your child.
It's important to let your child's school know about their condition, and to make sure this information filters down to the teachers. This will make it easier for your child to leave classes in a hurry if he or she needs to do so without drawing unnecessary attention. Also, it will help if the school nurse is aware of the situation so your child can get medicines (if needed) without having to explain every time and feel embarrassed.
Some children may need to take time off school if their symptoms are particularly bad. If this happens, it's useful to set up a system whereby your child can receive school work on a regular basis to do at home. This will stop him or her falling behind and make their return to the classroom easier.
It's also important to ensure that during your child's time away from school, he or she maintains contact with friends. This will help to keep some normality in your child's life and may help take their mind off the symptoms.
If you have any questions or concerns about your child's IBS, talk to your GP.
IBS is a different condition to inflammatory bowel disease but some of the symptoms are similar. Inflammatory bowel disease is usually more serious than IBS and the treatment is often different.
Inflammatory bowel disease is an umbrella term for conditions that cause inflammation in the bowel – it most often refers to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Crohn's disease is inflammation of your digestive pathway. It can affect any part of your digestive system, from your mouth down through your stomach and bowel to your anus. However, it's most common in your small bowel or the first part of your large bowel.
In ulcerative colitis, the lining of your large bowel and back passage (rectum) becomes inflamed and develops ulcers. This means that your large bowel can't absorb as much water as usual and it leads to diarrhoea.
Common symptoms of IBS include:
If you have inflammatory bowel disease, you may also have diarrhoea and a painful abdomen so sometimes it’s confusing to know which condition you have. However, if you have inflammatory bowel disease you will also have other symptoms, including:
If you have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease you’re at greater risk of getting IBS. It’s therefore possible that you can have both inflammatory bowel disease and IBS. It’s thought this is because the inflammation that happens in inflammatory bowel disease causes short-term damage to nerve endings in your intestine. It may be, for example, that you have an attack of inflammatory bowel disease followed by IBS symptoms, such as bloating.