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It’s normal to occasionally have an upset stomach, but if you’re regularly getting stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and bloating you might be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the digestive system, causing abdominal discomfort and unusual bowel symptoms. It’s thought that IBS affects around two in every 10 people in the UK. Though you can develop it at any point in your life, you’re most likely to start displaying symptoms in your 20s.

There is currently no cure for IBS, and for most people it’s a lifelong condition. However, with the right diet, lifestyle changes, and medicines, IBS symptoms can be brought under control.

IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – this condition causes the inflammation of the bowel and is more severe.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

One of the key symptoms of IBS is pain in the abdomen. Often this pain is felt low down on the left side. You might find that you have painful cramps after eating, and that they go away or become milder after you’ve been to the toilet.

In addition, people with IBS experience:

  • Bloating – the abdomen feels full, swollen, and uncomfortable
  • Diarrhoea – you might have to go to the toilet very suddenly and/ or often
  • Constipation – you might feel like you can’t fully empty your bowels

Other symptoms associated with IBS include:

  • Flatulence
  • Mucus in your stool
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Backache
  • Irritable bladder symptoms
  • Incontinence

It’s common for these symptoms to be triggered by eating or drinking certain things, or for them to come on when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious.

What causes IBS?

Unfortunately, the precise causes of IBS are not fully understood. It’s thought that the symptoms might arise from your gut nerves or muscles being more active than normal and/or your bowel having an increased sensitivity to pain. A genetic component is also likely – if you have a family history of IBS you’re more likely to be affected.

Once you’ve developed the condition you will probably find that certain things trigger your symptoms, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Fatty or spicy foods
  • Processed foods
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Certain antibiotics

Working out what your IBS triggers are can help you avoid bad flare-ups. Keeping a symptoms diary can help you identify these.

How is IBS diagnosed?

It’s not always easy to diagnose IBS straight away. This is because the key symptoms can be associated with other conditions.

The first step is making an appointment with a clinician. They will want to know what kinds of symptoms you’re experiencing, how long you’ve had them, and how often you get them.

The second step is getting tested for other conditions to rule them out. You might need to have blood tests or give a stool sample so that your clinician can check for other conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease.

If other conditions can be ruled out and your symptoms are a good fit for IBS, it’s likely that you’ll receive a diagnosis.

How is IBS treated?

Treatment for IBS typically starts with lifestyle changes. You should change your diet to avoid fatty, spicy, and processed foods, and try to cook more homemade meals with fresh ingredients. In addition, you should try to exercise more, cut back on alcohol, fizzy drinks, and caffeine, and keep a diary detailing your diet and symptoms.

You may have to tailor your treatment and diet to the symptoms you’re experiencing. For instance, high-fibre foods can help relieve constipation but might worsen diarrhoea symptoms.

Many medicines that can help with IBS are readily available over the counter in pharmacies:

  • Buscopan and peppermint oil are good for easing stomach cramps and bloating
  • Loperamide (e.g. Imodium) is good for reducing diarrhoea symptoms
  • Laxatives are good for encouraging bowel movements when you’re constipated

If you’re finding it difficult to bring your symptoms under control, even with medicines and diet changes, you should speak to a clinician. They might offer a prescription for a low-dose antidepressant, as this can help ease the pain of IBS. They might also refer you to a dietician, or – if your condition is making you anxious or depressed – a therapist or counsellor. 

You can also book an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP