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What You Need to Know About IBS

What You Need to Know About IBS

Don't shrug off your symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome affects between 10 and 15 percent of adults in the United States.

Not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. IBS is characterized by a group of symptoms that occur at the same time, including abdominal pain and cramping, bloating and changes in bowel movements.

IBS can affect anyone, but it’s twice as likely to occur in women as in men, and it most often occurs in people younger than 45 years of age. Here’s what you need to know about the condition.

There are different types
Irritable bowel syndrome can be classified into one of four categories, based on stool consistency. This classification helps healthcare providers accurately treat symptoms.

IBS-C: Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation is characterized by stool that's hard or lumpy at least 25 percent of the time and loose or watery less than 25 percent of the time.

IBS-D: Stool that's loose or watery at least 25 percent of the time and hard or lumpy less than 25 percent of the time is indicative of irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea.

IBS-M: Mixed irritable bowel syndrome is characterized by bowel movements that consist of at least 25 percent hard or lumpy stool and at least 25 percent loose or watery stool.

IBS-U: Those with unsubtyped irritable bowel syndrome pass stool that's hard or lumpy less than 25 percent of the time and loose or watery less than 25 percent of the time. It’s also common for people to switch between types.     

Causes are unclear
The causes of irritable bowel syndrome are uncertain, and triggers vary among people. Experts believe a combination of issues can trigger the condition. Some possibilities include:

  • Stress
  • Intestinal infections
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the intestines
  • Sensitivity to pain
  • Genetics
  • Food sensitivities

Symptoms can vary
IBS doesn’t cause other health problems or damage the gastrointestinal tract, but it does have some uncomfortable symptoms. People with IBS often experience gas, bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort, constipation or diarrhea (or both). Discomfort often starts shortly after eating and dissipates after making a bowel movement. Changes in frequency of bowel movements are also common.  

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can persist for long periods of time, sometimes even years. If signs began at least six month ago and have occurred three or times a month for the last three months, you may have IBS.     

Diagnosis can be difficult
There is no single test for diagnosing IBS. Your healthcare provider will likely assess your symptoms, review your medical history and perform a physical exam to diagnose the condition.

Tests may also be ordered to rule out other conditions. A blood test may be performed to check for celiac disease or a stool culture test may be ordered to look for a potential infection. A colonoscopy may be performed to check for cancer, especially if a patient is over 45, experiences sudden and unexplained weight loss, has bloody stool or has an abnormal blood test. 

Treatments are available
The goal in treating IBS is eliminating the symptoms, but treatments aren’t one-size-fits-all. Individuals may need to manage symptoms with a combination of methods. Often, lifestyle changes to reduce stress—like getting more exercise and establishing better sleep habits—can help manage symptoms.

Dietary changes may also be helpful. Fiber-rich diets can help alleviate diarrhea and constipation, but may increase bloating. Your provider may also recommend eating small meals, taking fiber supplements or laxatives and avoiding foods that stimulate the intestines, like caffeine and alcohol.

If lifestyle changes don’t reduce symptoms, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to manage symptoms.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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