This factsheet is for people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or who would like information about it.
IBS is a long-term condition that causes reoccurring pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy) and an altered bowel habit.
IBS is one of the most common problems of the digestive system. About two in 10 people in the UK have IBS and it’s twice as common in women than men.
IBS can develop at any age, but most people have their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 35.
Most people with IBS find their symptoms an occasional nuisance but don't feel the need to see a doctor. However, some people find that the condition affects their quality of life. If you find it difficult to cope with your symptoms, see your GP.
Symptoms of IBS include the following.
These symptoms may 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. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.
The exact reasons why you may develop IBS aren’t fully understood at present. It may be a combination of:
You may find that psychological factors, such as stress, may trigger your symptoms. Your symptoms may also get worse after eating certain foods, for example fatty foods.
Antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (eg Nurofen) and diclofenac (eg Voltarol), can also make your symptoms worse.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and 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 about your bowel movements, such as how often you open your bowels, how easy it is to go, what your faeces look like and if it has blood or mucus in it. 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 need 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 may include:
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. This is also known as a stool sample. If you choose to have this test, your sample will be sent to the laboratory for testing.
There are a number of treatment options for irritable bowel syndrome, as 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 treatments that can help to improve your symptoms. These include making changes to your lifestyle, taking medicines and psychological treatments. With the help of your GP, you can decide which is best for you. However, if your symptoms don’t interfere with your daily routine, you may wish to have no treatment at all.
You may wish to make lifestyle changes to help ease your symptoms of IBS. For most people with IBS, making some lifestyle changes is the best way to improve their symptoms.
The following general advice about your diet may help.
You may find it helpful to keep a food diary for two to four weeks to see if certain foods cause your symptoms. Always speak to your GP before changing your diet as advice may differ depending on your symptoms. If certain foods still seem to bring on your symptoms after trying this diet advice, it may help to see a dietitian.
Regular exercise is a good way to help reduce your symptoms. It helps keep your bowel movements regular and reduces stress. 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 stress management or relaxation techniques.
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 take medicines. There are several over-the-counter medicines available from your pharmacist that can relieve some of your symptoms of IBS..
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 of IBS, your GP may offer you some prescription medicines. These include prescription-only versions of the medicines mentioned above. Your GP may also offer you a low-dose antidepressant as this can reduce the pain of IBS, even if you're not depressed.
If your symptoms don't improve after a year of treatment, your GP may offer you psychological treatment.
Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy or psychological therapy can help relieve the symptoms of IBS. These are often useful for people who have personal difficulties to deal with. Your GP can refer you to a suitable therapist.
Produced by Stephanie Hughes, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on 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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