Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). Irritable bowel syndrome commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation. IBS is a chronic condition that you will need to manage long term.

Even though signs and symptoms are uncomfortable, IBS (unlike ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease which are forms of inflammatory bowel disease) doesn’t cause changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

Only a small number of people with IBS have severe signs and symptoms. Some people can control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle and stress. Others will need medication and counselling.

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person and often resemble those of other diseases. Among the most common are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • A bloated feeling
  • Gas
  • Diarrhoea or constipation — sometimes alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhoea
  • Mucus in the stool

For most people IBS is a chronic condition, although there will be times when the signs and symptoms are worse and times when they improve or even disappear completely.

When to see a Doctor

Although as many as 1 in 5 American adults have signs and symptoms of IBS, fewer than 1 in 5 seek medical help. Yet it’s important to see your doctor if you have a persistent change in bowel habits or if you have any other signs or symptoms of IBS because these may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.

Symptoms that may indicate a more serious condition include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain that progresses or occurs at night
  • Weight loss

Your doctor may be able to help you find ways to relieve symptoms as well as rule out colon conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. Your doctor can also help you avoid possible complications from problems such as chronic diarrhoea.

Risk Factors

Many people have occasional signs and symptoms of IBS, but you’re more likely to have IBS if you:

  • Are young. IBS tends to occur in people under age 45
  • Are female. Overall, about twice as many women as men have the condition
  • Have a family history of IBS. Studies suggest that people who have a family member with IBS may be at increased risk
  • Have a mental health problem. Anxiety, depression, a personality disorder and a history of childhood sexual abuse are risk factors. For women, domestic abuse may be a risk factor as well