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Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-.

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Informed Health Online [Internet].

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What are the typical symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

Created: ; Last Update: May 10, 2012.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a rather common health problem. Typical symptoms include long-lasting stomach or abdominal pain, flatulence (gas), diarrhoea and constipation. Mucus discharge in stool can also be a sign of IBS.

There are several different medical criteria for diagnosing IBS. According to one of the latest definitions, you have irritable bowel syndrome if you have had pain or discomfort in your bowel in the last three months, on at least three days a month, and these symptoms have lasted for at least six months. Two of the following criteria must also be fulfilled:

  • Symptoms get better after a bowel movement
  • When symptoms start, the frequency of bowel movements changes
  • When symptoms start, the appearance of the stool changes

These symptoms could be caused by other things too though, like lactose intolerance (where people cannot digest dairy products properly). They may also be signs of coeliac disease (sprue). This is an intolerance to gluten – a protein that is found in different types of grains and many other foods. Blood tests and other tests can rule out that the symptoms are caused by these food intolerances. But people sometimes have both irritable bowel syndrome and a food intolerance at the same time.

If you have any of the following symptoms as well, they are likely to be caused by another bowel disorder:

  • significant weight loss
  • blood in the stool
  • a fever
  • anaemia

These could be signs of something else, like a chronic inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Another possible cause is diverticulitis, an inflammation where stool gets stuck in pockets in the wall of the bowel. Sudden severe abdominal pain could also be a sign of gallstones.

Although it could be a sign of bowel cancer if you have digestive problems together with symptoms such as blood in the stool, this disease is very rare in people under the age of 50.

Author: German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG)


  • Ford AC, Talley NJ, Veldhuyzen van Zanten SJ, Vakil NB et al. Will the history and physical examination help establish that irritable bowel syndrome is causing this patient's lower gastrointestinal tract symptoms? JAMA 2008; 300: 1793-1805. [PubMed: 18854541]
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Bookshelf ID: NBK53832
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