March 2, 2020

What’s the difference between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

IBS and IBD are medical conditions that can affect the digestive system, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Both disorders can cause pain in the abdomen and changes in bowel movements, but there are important differences. In observance of IBS Awareness Month in April, the main differences are described below.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Classified as a syndrome, or a group of symptoms that may include:
    • Abdominal pain and cramps
    • Constipation
    • Diarrhea
    • Alternating between constipation and diarrhea
    • Gas
    • Bloating
    • Nausea
  • Caused by a problem with how the brain and digestive system work together; often triggered by stress or food
  • Does not cause inflammation; rarely requires hospitalization or surgery
  • Affects women more than men, usually during adolescence or early adult life
  • Shows no signs during an exam of the colon (large intestine)
  • Does not increase the risk for colon cancer or IBD

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

  • A group of inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Symptoms may include:
    • Anemia (low level of iron in the blood)
    • Bleeding
    • Abdominal pain
    • Diarrhea
    • Weight loss
    • Fever
  • Caused by the immune system’s abnormal response to bacteria in the bowels
  • Can cause harmful inflammation and permanent damage to the intestines
  • Affects men and women about equally and tends to run in families
  • Can be seen with diagnostic tests, such as X-rays or a colonoscopy
  • Increases the risk for colon cancer

Both conditions are treatable, so talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above. Click here to learn more about irritable bowel syndrome or to make an appointment with a UAB Medicine gastroenterologist.

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