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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) health centre

Irritable bowel syndrome - What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects people in different ways. But everyone with IBS gets pain and discomfort. You may also have diarrhoea, constipation, or bouts of both. You may sometimes feel bloated.

Some people with IBS only have mild symptoms for short periods. Others have unpleasant symptoms that last a long time. Many people have occasional flare-ups of their symptoms, often during times of stress.

You get symptoms because your bowels aren't working properly. Bear in mind that although IBS can be unpleasant, there is nothing seriously wrong with your bowels. IBS doesn't lead to more serious illnesses, like cancer.

Although symptoms vary a lot from person to person, there are four key symptoms.[20][21]

  • Pain. You may feel pain or discomfort in parts of your abdomen. The pain may be very bad. It may move around, and you may not be able to say exactly where it is. The pain may come and go. If you are a woman, it may get worse when you have your period. The pain may go away when you go to the toilet or break wind.

  • Bloating. You may be bloated or have a feeling of fullness in your abdomen. You may pass more wind than usual.

  • Diarrhoea. Your stools may become loose and watery. You may need to go to the toilet more often, or feel you need to go urgently.

  • Constipation. Your stools may become small and hard. Going to the toilet may be difficult or uncomfortable.

You get these symptoms because the muscles that form the wall of your bowels aren't working as they should.

  • Your muscles might be contracting (tightening) too quickly, so the food in your bowels gets pushed along too fast. There isn't time for water from the food to be absorbed into your bloodstream, so your stools become watery and you get diarrhoea.

  • Or the muscles may work very slowly or even stop working for a while. This means the food stays in your bowels for a long time. A lot of water gets absorbed into your bloodstream from the food. Your stools become hard and difficult to pass, making you constipated.

  • The muscles in your colon may also go into spasm and cause cramping pain. Spasms are sudden, strong muscle movements that come and go. If you have spasms, gas, or waste from food can get trapped in your colon. This can make you feel bloated.

Some people with IBS get diarrhoea. Others have constipation, and some people have bouts of both. Lots of people with IBS have a feeling of not fully emptying their bowels when they go to the toilet. You may also pass mucus when you go to the toilet. (Mucus is a thick fluid made in several parts of your body, including your bowels.)

Last Updated: March 13, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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