Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Learn about what IBS is and how it can be managed

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system.

The condition is often lifelong, although the symptoms may change over time. With the right strategies, IBS can be successfully managed.

IBS does not pose a serious threat to your physical health and does not increase your chances of developing cancer or other bowel-related conditions.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown. Many causes have been suggested but none have been proven to lead to IBS.

IBS symptoms

The symptoms of IBS vary between individuals and affect some people more severely than others. Symptoms can become worse, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods.

You may find some of the symptoms of IBS ease after going to the toilet and moving your bowels.

Main symptoms

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

  • abdominal (stomach) pain and cramping, which may be relieved by moving your bowels
  • a change in your bowel habits – such as diarrhoea, constipation or sometimes both
  • bloating and swelling of your stomach
  • excessive wind (flatulence)
  • occasionally experiencing an urgent need to move your bowels

Less common syptoms

Other less common symptoms may also be experienced, such as:

  • lack of energy (lethargy)
  • feeling sick
  • heartburn

The symptoms of IBS can also have a significant impact on a person's day-to-day life and, as a result, some people may experience symptoms of low mood and stress.

Non-urgent advice: See your GP if:

  • you think you have IBS type symptoms, so they can try to identify the cause
  • you're feeling anxious or experiencing a change in your mood as this can worsen IBS symptoms

Urgent advice: See your GP urgently if:

You have other symptoms, including:

  • a change in your bowel habits that has lasted for more than 6 weeks, especially if you are over 50 years of age
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a swelling or lump in your stomach or back passage
  • bleeding from your back passage

These can sometimes be a sign of a potentially more serious condition.

You should also tell your GP if you have these symptoms and a family history of bowel cancer or ovarian cancer.

Diagnosing IBS

There are no specific tests for IBS. Many cases can be diagnosed based on your symptom history and your GP will undertake some routine blood and stool tests to rule out other conditions.

As the symptoms of IBS are similar to other conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, it is important to rule these out.

It is important not to make any dietary changes until these tests have been done. This is particularly important for the blood test for coeliac disease as the result can be affected by your diet.

Private allergy testing (for example hair sampling) is not a reliable way to test for allergies or intolerances. If you are concerned, please talk to your GP.