IBS is a common condition that affects the digestive system.

IBS is a long-term condition that causes pain or discomfort in your abdomen and a change in your bowel habits. About two in 10 people in the UK have IBS. You can develop IBS at any age, but you usually have your first symptoms when you’re between 20 and 30. Women are twice as likely to get it as men.

IBS can often be eased with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines from your pharmacy. But if your symptoms are new or have changed, it’s important to speak to your GP to see if IBS is causing them.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

If you have IBS, your symptoms may just be an occasional nuisance. So you may not feel you need to see a doctor about your IBS again once you’ve been diagnosed. But if your symptoms make it difficult for you to go about your daily activities, you should speak to your doctor. Outlined below are some of the symptoms of IBS.

Pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen). You may feel this in your lower tummy on your left-hand side. The discomfort may vary from a sudden sharp pain to a constant dull ache. You may also get cramps. This pain may ease if you go to the toilet and may get worse after eating.

Changes in bowel habits. Your stool (faeces) may vary in consistency and can alternate between constipation and diarrhoea. You may also pass small amounts of mucus. Sometimes you may need to go to the toilet urgently, and at other times you may have problems going. After going to the toilet, your bowels may feel like they haven’t been completely emptied.

Your abdomen may look and feel bloated.

IBS symptoms can come and go – you may not have any symptoms for months and may then have a sudden flare-up.

IBS can cause other symptoms too. These include:

  • feeling very tired
  • indigestion
  • feeling sick
  • backache
  • trouble sleeping
  • regular headaches
  • problems with your bladder, such as needing to pass urine more often
  • painful sex

You may feel embarrassed about your symptoms and find it difficult to talk about your IBS. But it’s important to discuss any worries you have with your consultant. IBS is often linked to feelings of anxiety or depression, so looking after how you feel is important. For more information, take a look at our information on the brain-gut connection in IBS.

Diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome

Your consultant will ask about your symptoms and may examine you. They’ll also ask about your medical history.

Your consultant will ask you about your pain; when you notice it, and what makes it better or worse. They’ll also ask you about your bowel movements. This may include questions about how often you go to the toilet, how easy it is to go, and what your stool looks like.

IBS can’t be confirmed with a test. It’s usually diagnosed if you have typical IBS symptoms. But your consultant may recommend you have blood tests, scans, an X-ray or sometimes a colonoscopy to rule out some other conditions.

You’re most likely to have further tests if you have other symptoms:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • blood or mucus in your stool
  • bowel problems that first developed after you turned 60
  • diarrhoea that lasts for longer than six weeks
  • anaemia

You may also be advised to have further tests if you have a family history of bowel or ovarian cancer.

If your consultant thinks your symptoms could be caused by an infection, they may ask you for a stool sample. The stool sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing.