Introduction 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system. It can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation.

The symptoms vary between individuals and affect some people more severely than others. They tend to come and go in periods lasting a few days to a few months at a time, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods.

You may find that some of symptoms improve after having a poo.

IBS is thought to affect up to one in five people at some point in their life, and it usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age. Around twice as many women are affected as men.

The condition is often life-long, although it may improve over several years.

Read more about the symptoms of IBS.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you think you have IBS symptoms, so they can try to determine the cause.

Your GP may be able to identify IBS based on your symptoms, although blood tests may be needed to rule out other conditions.

Read more about diagnosing IBS.

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but most experts think that it's related to increased sensitivity of the gut and problems digesting food.

These problems may mean that you are more sensitive to pain coming from your gut, and you may become constipated or have diarrhoea because your food passes through your gut either too slowly or too quickly.

Psychological factors such as stress may also play a part in IBS.

Read more about the causes of IBS.

How IBS is treated

There is no cure for IBS, but the symptoms can often be managed by making changes to your diet and lifestyle.

For example, it may help to:

  • identify and avoid foods or drinks that trigger your symptoms
  • alter the amount of fibre in your diet
  • exercise regularly
  • reduce your stress levels

Medication is sometimes prescribed for people with IBS to treat the individual symptoms they experience.

Read more about treating IBS.

Living with IBS

IBS is unpredictable. You may go for many months without any symptoms, then have a sudden flare-up.

The condition can also be painful and debilitating, which can have a negative impact on your quality of life and emotional state. Many people with IBS will experience feelings of depression and anxiety, at some point. 

Speak to your GP if you have feelings of depression or anxiety that are affecting your daily life. These problems rarely improve without treatment and your GP can recommend treatments such as antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you cope with IBS, as well as directly treating the condition.

With appropriate medical and psychological treatment, you should be able to live a normal, full and active life with IBS. 

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.

IBS explained

An expert explains the causes of irritable bowel syndrome, common symptoms, treatment options available and where to get help.

Media last reviewed: 25/10/2013

Next review due: 25/10/2015

Page last reviewed: 25/09/2014

Next review due: 25/09/2016