Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a common condition with an unknown cause. It affects the large intestine, also known as the colon. The condition is chronic and is often characterized by intermittent flare-ups of symptoms. IBS does not cause any changes to the bowel tissue and it doesn’t lead to an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

According to the recent researches, as many as 1 in 5 American adults shows signs of IBS. Women are affected more frequently than men. However, both men and women of all ages can be affected by IBS. Even children can have the condition. IBS symptoms may be mild or severe. IBS can be managed with medication as well as lifestyle and diet changes.

IBS Symptoms

Abdominal pain

Pain and cramping is a hallmark symptom of the condition. This pain may be persistent or may come and go. The pain can be a very intense, stabbing kind of pain or a more dull ache. The pain may be throughout the abdomen or localized to one area, like the lower left side. In IBS, this pain is often relieved by having a bowel movement.

Feeling bloated

A feeling of fullness or tightness in the abdomen is another classic IBS symptom. Sometimes this feeling of bloat will be accompanied by a visible increase in the diameter of the abdominal area. It can feel like the stomach area is swollen.

Gas

A bloated feeling and gas go hand in hand. Feeling gassy and experiencing frequent and regular flatulence can be a part of IBS.

Diarrhea

Frequent and urgent trips to the bathroom may be a part of IBS, as diarrhea is another common symptom. Frequent loose, watery stools can also lead a person to become dehydrated. Dehydration isn’t a symptom of IBS itself, but it can be a related symptom as a result of diarrhea.

Constipation

In addition to diarrhea, the opposite kind of problem is another common IBS symptom. Constipation means having infrequent bowel movements or bowel movements that are very hard to pass. Constipation can also exacerbate other IBS symptoms like pain, bloat, and gas. In addition, constipation can lead to secondary problems like hemorrhoids from the strain of trying to expel dry, hard stools.

Mucus in the stool

It is always normal for there to be some amount of mucus in the stool. Mucus helps keep the intestines moist and lubricated. However, in the case of IBS, the amount of this jelly-like substance may be increased.

Possible Additional Symptoms

Additional syptoms may accompany the typical symptoms of IBS.

Symptoms of the upper GI tract

  • heartburn
  • nausea
  • reaching satiety (fullness) quite soon when eating

Non-GI symptoms

Non-GI symptoms may also present. These symptoms may be a bodily reaction to the primary IBS symptoms, although these sometimes may be due to an overlap with a secondary condition.

  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • sleep disturbances
  • sexual dysfunction
  • low back pain
  • headache

Presentation of IBS Symptoms

Several symptoms may present at once, like pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Or, the symptoms will present only one at a time. There are four primary subtypes of IBS:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • mixed – both diarrhea and constipation
  • alternating – a pattern that shifts between diarrhea and constipation

In women, the presentation of symptoms may line up with the menstrual cycle with symptoms appearing or becoming worse at certain times during the cycle. Hormones clearly play a role in IBS for women.

Symptoms Not Associated With IBS

There are some symptoms that you may think fit into the general pattern of IBS that are really indicative of a more serious problem. These symptoms should always prompt a visit to a doctor to help diagnose the underlying cause, which potentially could be quite serious.

Blood in the stool

If there is blood mixed in with diarrhea or normal stool, this is not an IBS symptom. Rather, it could be a sign of something very serious. Bloody stool should prompt an urgent visit to the doctor. The only time blood in the stool could conceivably be related to IBS is blood from hemorrhoids caused by the strain of constipation.

Anemia

Anemia is a low count of red blood cells that often causes weakness and fatigue. Anemia may be caused by blood loss through the stool. Sometimes, you may not be aware that there is blood in the stool until anemia brings it to your attention. Anemia may be a sign of a serious problem, but it is not characteristic of IBS.

Unexplained weight loss

Weight loss that is not intentional is not a symptom of IBS. Unexplained weight loss suggests a different, potentially serious, problem.

Fever

Running a high temperature or having chills is not an IBS symptom. It may be a sign of an infection or another illness.

Triggers That Make IBS Symptoms Flare Up

It is important for IBS sufferers to pay attention to things that may make their IBS symptoms flare up or become worse. Lifestyle changes and changes to diet may help minimize the frequency or severity of symptoms.

Diet triggers

Certain food and drink can trigger IBS symptoms, though this is different from person to person. Some common diet triggers of IBS symptoms include:

  • processed foods
  • coffee
  • carbonated drinks
  • alcohol
  • dairy products, especially cheese
  • breads and cereals made with refined grains
  • high-protein diets
  • too much fiber
  • fried and fatty foods
  • large meals
  • gas-causing foods like beans, brussels sprouts, and cabbage
  • food or drink made with fructose or sorbitol

Lifestyle triggers for IBS symptoms

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • not getting enough sleep
  • certain medications, like antibiotics and antidepressants
  • not getting enough exercise

Because of the nature of common IBS symptoms, living with IBS can be an uncomfortable, isolating, and embarrassing challenge. However, with support, treatment, coping strategies, and lifestyle changes, IBS can be managed and you can live a full and happy life.