30 June 2023

When we mention we have IBD or IBS we are so often met with well-meaning people telling us, “Oh I get a bad tummy too.” 

Having gastrointestinal symptoms is common, but how do we know if it’s just ‘one of those things’ like a tummy upset or could it be IBS or IBD, and how can we tell them apart? 


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) 


It is unclear why some people get IBS, but we do know it is a common condition which affects the digestive system. Symptoms often present themselves in the form of bloating, stomach cramps, an upset tummy or constipation.  

Bowel habits can vary from day to day with IBS and the symptoms can come and go, lasting for a few days or months. It is unpredictable and can make life difficult. An IBD can manifest itself in similar ways, yet the two conditions affect the body differently. 

 While the cause of IBS is unknown, the transit time of food can be too fast or slow. Too fast, and there is an urgent need to rush to the toilet, and too slow can mean constipation and the struggle to poo. The digestive system is designed to work perfectly, and when the balance is upset by stress, diet or dehydration, IBS symptoms can occur.  

Doctors now recognise that diet and medications can help to control the symptoms. The recommended diet from NHS dietitians is the low-FODMAP diet. This is an acronym which helps you remember the different foods which may trigger symptoms.  

Keeping a food diary is a good idea for anyone trying to improve their health, even if they don’t have bowel symptoms. As humans, we are very individual and only we know how we feel. Being aware of trigger foods, heightened stress, lack of sleep or intake of water, for example, may help find a balance to reduce symptoms. IBS will be diagnosed when all other causes of symptoms have been ruled out by a doctor. 

IBS is classed as a syndrome, which is defined as a group of symptoms. It does not cause inflammation and rarely requires surgery or hospitalization. During a colonoscopy, there will be no sign of abnormality of the colon or any sign of disease. The risk of colon cancer is not increased with IBS.  

 People who are diagnosed with IBS often can feel a lack of a diagnosis as it feels more like a list of symptoms. Yet, this is the first step to trying to relieve symptoms to ensure as little disruption to daily life as possible. 


Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) 


IBD is different to IBS, although many of the symptoms cross over. Both types of illness can cause difficulty in daily life and can also be very debilitating. The most common types of IBD are Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease. An IBD can cause damage throughout the body, as well as the digestive system, as it presents extra-intestinal manifestations.  

IBD is an umbrella term used to describe different types of disease, and while some IBDs may present themselves differently from others, they are all classified as diseases.  IBDs are inflammatory and can cause destructive harm to the intestines. When diagnostic imaging is used, the disease can be seen. People with an IBD have an increased risk of colon cancer and will need to be monitored by their medical team.  

There are many medications to help treat IBD, including steroids and immunosuppressants, and new treatments and even potential cures are being funded through medical research, which offers hope to sufferers.  


Any changes in normal bowel habits can be worrying, and it is important to seek medical help from your doctor to find out the reason why.