I've heard that a bout of food poisoning can cause irritable bowel syndrome. Is this true?
Yes, some research suggests that you may be at risk of developing IBS if you’ve had a bout of food poisoning (gastroenteritis). Gastroenteritis is a condition caused by an infection that leads to diarrhoea and vomiting.
IBS is a long-term condition that causes pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy) and a change in your bowel habit.
IBS is a common condition which affects your digestive system. About two in 10 people in the UK have IBS. Women are twice as likely to get it as men.
IBS can develop at any age, but people usually have their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 30.
Most people with IBS find their symptoms an occasional nuisance but don't feel the need to see a doctor. However, you may find that the condition affects your quality of life. If you find it difficult to cope with your symptoms, speak to your GP.
Symptoms of IBS include the following.
These symptoms can 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. However, if you have any of them, speak to your GP for advice.
As well as the physical symptoms it causes, for some people IBS can be linked to other problems. For example, you may lose interest in sex or find it painful. It’s also common for IBS to be associated with feelings of anxiety or depression.
You may feel embarrassed about your symptoms and talking about them, but try not to. It’s important to remember that your mental wellbeing is as important as your physical health. Your GP can give you advice about how to manage any feelings of anxiety or depression you may have.
The exact reasons why IBS develops aren’t fully understood at present. It may be a combination of:
You may find that your symptoms get worse:
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and may ask to 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 you about your bowel movements. This may include questions about how often you go to the toilet, how easy it is to go, and what your faeces look like. There is no single test to confirm IBS. Therefore, to rule out any other conditions, your GP may also recommend that you have some blood tests.
If you have typical IBS symptoms, it's unlikely you will be offered any other tests. However, if your symptoms could be linked to other bowel conditions, your GP may suggest that you have some further tests.
Symptoms that are linked to other bowel conditions include:
You may also be advised to have further tests if you’re over 40 and have a family history of bowel or ovarian cancer.
If your GP thinks that your symptoms could be caused by an infection, he or she may ask you for a sample of your faeces. If you have this test, your sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing. This is also known as a stool sample.
There are a number of treatment options for irritable bowel syndrome. These are described below. Which treatments you are offered will depend on your personal circumstances. Your doctor will discuss these with you to help you make a decision that’s right for you. Your decision will be based on your doctor’s expert opinion and your own personal values and preferences.
Although there is no cure for IBS, there are many self-help measures and lifestyle changes you can make that may help to improve your symptoms. You may also wish to try medicines and psychological treatments. With the help of your GP, you can decide which is best for you. However, if your symptoms don’t cause you too much trouble or stop you from doing things, you may wish to have no treatment at all.
Making lifestyle changes may help to ease your symptoms of IBS.
The following general advice about your diet may help.
You may find it helpful to keep a food diary to see if certain foods cause your symptoms. Speak to your GP or a dietitian before making major changes to your diet, or if you’re pregnant or have another medical condition.
Regular exercise is a good way to help reduce your symptoms. 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, you could try learning a relaxation technique to help you deal with your stress.
You may find it helpful to talk to other people who are in a similar situation to you. You can find details about self-help groups from charities that support people with IBS – some of these will have websites with contact details. Don’t forget, you can also speak to your GP about this. He or she may also be able to give you information about local self-help groups.
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.
If your symptoms don’t improve with lifestyle changes, you may wish to try medicines. There are several over-the-counter medicines that may relieve some of your symptoms. Speak to your pharmacist if you’d like more information about your treatment options.
Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
If these treatments don’t ease your symptoms, your GP may also offer you a low-dose antidepressant. This can reduce the pain of IBS, even if you're not depressed.
If your symptoms don't improve, your GP may recommend psychological treatment.
Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy or psychotherapy may help to relieve the symptoms of IBS. These may help you cope with your condition. Some studies suggest that psychological therapies like these may be helpful in improving the symptoms of IBS, although research is still ongoing. More research is needed to look into how well these treatments work, especially in the long term.
If you would like to try this kind of therapy, ask your GP if he or she can suggest a suitable therapist. You can also look for a therapist yourself. If you do this, make sure you check that they are fully qualified and registered with a relevant professional organisation.
Reviewed by Hemali Parekh, Bupa Health Information Team, April 2014
For answers to frequently asked questions about this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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