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Overview of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder in which your bowels do not work properly. It can cause symptoms such as pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.

We do not know exactly what causes IBS, but it seems to be related to your bowel being more sensitive than usual, and food passing through your digestive system too quickly or too slowly.

IBS is very common and affects around one in seven people. It's more common in women than men and in people under the age of 50.

IBS doesn't increase your chance of getting other bowel diseases, such as bowel cancer.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

Your symptoms can come and go and can last for a few days or up to a few months. They often happen when you're feeling stressed or after you've eaten certain foods. They may often settle down for a long time.

Diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome

A doctor can usually diagnose IBS based on your symptoms.

Your doctor may examine you, ask you about your symptoms and discuss your family history and overall health and lifestyle. Other conditions, such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease can have similar symptoms to IBS. So, your doctor may ask you to have a blood test and provide a stool (poo) sample to rule them out.

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to the Gastroenterology Department at the hospital to have a test such as a colonoscopy or gastroscopy.

Treating irritable bowel syndrome

There is no cure for IBS but most people can manage their symptoms by changing how and what they eat and making lifestyle changes. Some people may also need to take medications.

On the next page: Self-care for IBS

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2021.

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Preparing for your doctor's visit

Page reference: 338470

Review key: HIIBS-27995