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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) health centre

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) risk factors

As many as one in five people in the UK may experience symptoms of IBS at some point in their lives, but it still isn’t clear exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome.

However, doctors do know there is a range of risk factors affecting a person's chances of developing IBS. These include:

Food sensitivities

Some people may have digestive systems that rumble angrily with consumption of dairy, wheat, fructose (a simple sugar found in fruits), or sorbitol (a sugar substitute). Certain things - such as fatty and fried foods, fizzy drinks and alcohol - can also invite chronic digestive upset. There’s no proof any of these cause IBS but they may trigger symptoms.


IBS is more common in women than in men. Researchers aren’t sure why this is so but they suspect that changing hormone levels in the female menstrual cycle may have something to do with it.


IBS can affect people of any ages but the symptoms are more likely to appear for the first time in people aged 20-30.

Family history

Studies have shown that people who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with IBS are at increased risk of the condition. It's not clear whether the influence of family history on IBS risk is related to genes, or to shared factors in a family's environment, or both.


Studies have shown an association between IBS symptoms and antibiotics, antidepressants and drugs containing sorbitol.

Psychological factors

Many people with IBS may be stressed, have psychological or emotional problems or have experienced some sort of a stressful or traumatic life event, sometimes during childhood. There’s evidence that stress management and cognitive behavioural therapy helps relieve symptoms.

Irregular mealtimes

Eating at irregular times or eating an abnormal diet may trigger IBS in some people.

Food poisoning

IBS may develop after experiencing food poisoning or gastroenteritis for some people.

Get medical advice

Talk to your doctor if you suspect you might have IBS. Don't try to self-diagnose this condition. There are various treatments available for IBS with constipation and IBS with diarrhoea that may make your life easier. Dietary modification, exercise, stress reduction and probiotics may help, as well as medication.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on July 29, 2015

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