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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common long-term condition of the gut that affects how the digestive system works. It can cause stomach cramps, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea – find out more about the symptoms and causes.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), there’s a problem with the way your gut (bowel) works, but there will be nothing else wrong with your bowel when examined under a microscope. It’s a common condition that affects women more than men, and it’s usually a lifelong (chronic) problem.

IBS symptoms can be very similar to types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is why it’s important to speak to a doctor and get checked out.


Inflammatory bowel disease is a very similar condition to IBS, caused by inflammation of the digestive tract. The two main types of inflammatory bowel disease are Crohn’s disease (which can affect the whole gut) and ulcerative colitis (found in the large intestine). Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms can be easily confused with IBS symptoms.

As this is also a chronic condition, there is no straightforward cure or treatment. Patients do tend to find that the symptoms come and go over time, and they may experience a flare up when the disease is more active.

Like IBS, the exact inflammatory bowel disease causes are unknown - but there are a number of contributing factors found to increase your risk. These include age, genetics, problems with your immune system, ethnicity, environmental factors and certain medications.

To find out more about getting an inflammatory bowel disease diagnosis, as well as inflammatory bowel disease treatment, you can visit the NHS medical page or arrange to speak to a Livi doctor.

IBS symptoms

The most common IBS symptoms in females, as well as males are:

  • Stomach pain or cramps which may get worse after eating

  • Bloating and gas (flatulence)

  • Diarrhoea

  • Constipation

  • Tiredness

  • Mucus in your poo

  • Backache

  • Needing to pee more than usual

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS symptoms isn’t known, but it’s thought to be linked to:

  • Irregular muscle contractions in the bowel – When muscle contractions in the bowel are stronger or weaker than they should be, it can make food move too quickly or slowly through the gut

  • The nervous system – If there are problems with the nerves in your digestive system and disrupted signals between your brain and the intestines

  • Serious infection – IBS can occur after a severe case of an infection like gastroenteritis, caused by bacteria or a virus

  • Changes to the make-up of your gut microbiome (microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that live in the digestive tracts)

Other factors that can put you at greater risk of developing IBS include:

IBS diagnosis

The doctor will do a physical examination and ask you about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. It may help to make a diary of your symptoms for a few weeks before your appointment, making a note of:

  • The symptoms you experience and how badly they affected you

  • When they occur and how long they last

  • What you were doing at the time, for example, after eating

  • What foods you eat each day

There’s no test to see if you have IBS, but the doctor may use tests to check for other problems or causes. These might include blood tests or taking a poo sample for analysis.

IBS treatment

Treatment usually involves a combination of medication and changes to your diet and lifestyle. There’s no single medicine that treats IBS, so it can take time and patience to find the right combination to manage your IBS symptoms. This is very similar for patients getting treatment for inflammatory bowel disease.

A range of medication can help to relieve different IBS symptoms, like laxatives to treat constipation, antispasmodic medicines for tummy pain and antidiarrheal medicines to reduce diarrhoea. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist to see what they advise.

If your symptoms are severe and dietary and lifestyle changes are not helping, you may be offered some stronger medication, like certain antidepressants that can help to ease IBS symptoms.

Some changes to your diet that can help relieve IBS symptoms include:

  • Learning about the foods that trigger your symptoms by keeping a food diary and avoiding these whenever possible

  • Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients whenever possible

  • Avoiding processed, fatty and spicy foods

  • Chewing correctly and not rushing food

  • Cutting down on alcohol and fizzy drinks

  • Eating regular meals

  • Trying probiotics for a couple of months to see if they have an effect

Lifestyle changes that might help include:

  • Getting regular exercise

  • Finding ways to manage your stress

Specialist help and support

It may be helpful to talk to a dietician to get specific dietary advice about treating your IBS. Sometimes this is available on the NHS, but you may need to find a private dietician.

You may also be referred to have further tests to rule out inflammatory bowel disease.

When stress and anxiety are the main cause of IBS, talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBTS) can help. CBTS helps you manage your problems by noticing any negative patterns of behaviour and changing how you think and behave. Talk to your doctor if you think this could be helpful for you.

Recovering from IBS

IBS is usually a lifelong condition, but symptoms tend to come and go and can generally be well managed. Many people have long periods with no symptoms and only use medication when their symptoms flare up.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: