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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a collection of symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. People with IBS have some of these symptoms — such as cramping and diarrhea or bloating and constipation — for at least 3 months.
IBS can be uncomfortable. But it does not lead to serious disease, such as cancer. It also does not permanently harm the large intestine (colon).
Most people with IBS can ease symptoms with changes in diet, medicine, and stress relief. For some people, IBS symptoms are more severe. They may get in the way of going to work or traveling, even traveling short distances.
The cause of IBS is not known. There is also no cure for IBS, but there are ways to treat the symptoms (see "What is the treatment for IBS?" ).
IBS is one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. Up to 20 percent of U.S. adults have IBS symptoms.
Some people are more likely to have IBS including:
IBS is defined as abdominal pain or discomfort, along with a changed bowel habit (such as diarrhea or constipation), for 3 months or more. The abdomen is the same as the “stomach area.”
The symptoms may be different from person to person and can include:
Women with IBS may have more symptoms during their menstrual periods.
See your doctor if you think you may have IBS. Your doctor will ask you questions about your health, ask about your symptoms, and examine you. He or she may even perform a rectal exam. There are no tests that can show for sure that you have IBS.
Your doctor may also perform medical tests to rule out other diseases if you have “red flag” symptoms such as:
Medical tests include a colonoscopy (KOH-lon-oss-koh-pee). The doctor looks inside the large intestine by inserting a scope with a tiny camera to spot inflamed tissue, abnormal growths, and ulcers. People over age 50 with IBS symptoms should also have a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer, even if they don't have any "red flag" symptoms.
A doctor may also perform a blood test to check for celiac disease if you have certain types of IBS. These types are IBS-D (mostly diarrhea) or IBS-M (mixed type with diarrhea and constipation). A doctor may also check for celiac disease if you have bloating or pass a lot of gas.
Lactose intolerance may also be a concern for some people, and can be checked with a breath test.
There is no cure for IBS, but there are things you can do to feel better. Treatment may include:
Changing your diet
Foods do not cause IBS, but eating certain food may start some IBS symptoms. You can ease the symptoms of IBS by changing some eating habits.
Find out which foods make your symptoms worse by writing in a journal:
You will want to limit or avoid these foods. Problem foods may be:
Other ways to ease symptoms are:
Your doctor may give you medicine to help with symptoms:
Take your medicine exactly as your doctor tells you to. All drugs have side effects and may affect people differently. Tell your doctor about any over-the-counter medicines you take.
Many people who seek care for IBS also have anxiety, panic, or depression. Stress is also an issue for people with IBS because it can make the symptoms worse. Research shows that psychological therapy can help ease IBS symptoms. Therapies that can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety include:
General stress relief is also important. Exercising regularly is a good way to relieve stress. It also helps the bowel function better and improves overall health. Meditation, yoga, and massage may also help.
For more information about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) fact sheet was reviewed by:
Michael Camilleri, M.D.
Professor of Medicine
Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Mayo Clinic
Content last updated: July 16, 2012.