Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

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. Around twice as many women are affected as men.

Symptoms of IBS 

The symptoms of IBS are usually worse after eating and tend to come and go in episodes.

Most people have flare-ups of symptoms that last a few days. After this time, the symptoms usually improve, but may not disappear completely.

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

  • abdominal (stomach) pain and cramping, which may be relieved by a bowel movement (having a poo)
  • a change in your bowel habits – such as diarrhoeaconstipation, or sometimes both
  • bloating and swelling of your stomach  
  • excessive wind (flatulence)
  • occasionally experiencing an urgent need to go to the toilet
  • a feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels after going to the toilet 
  • passing mucus from your bottom 

As well as the main symptoms described above, some people with IBS experience a number of other problems. These can include:

  • a lack of energy (lethargy)
  • feeling sick
  • backache
  • bladder problems (such as needing to wake up to urinate at night, experiencing an urgent need to urinate and difficulty fully emptying the bladder)
  • incontinence (an inability to control bowel movements, resulting in involuntary soiling)

The symptoms of IBS can also have a significant impact on a person's day-to-day life.  As a result, many people with the condition may have feelings of depression and anxiety.

Treating IBS 

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. Your GP will be able to recommend treatment.

When to seek medical help 

You should see your GP if you think you have IBS symptoms, so they can try to find out 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.

You should see your GP right away if you have other symptoms including:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • a swelling or lump in your stomach or bottom
  • bleeding from your bottom or signs of anaemia

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

Causes of IBS

The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is unknown, but most experts think that it's related to problems with digestion and increased sensitivity of the gut.

There is also some evidence to suggest that psychological factors play an important role in IBS.

Stress and anxiety can trigger chemical changes that interfere with the normal workings of the digestive system. This does not just happen in people with 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.  Speak to your GP if you have feelings of depression or anxiety that are affecting your daily life. 

With 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.


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed April 2018

This page is due for review February 2020

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