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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms

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This information was reviewed and approved by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (7/1/2009).

Abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort are the main symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

However, symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people experience constipation. Often these people report straining and cramping when trying to have a bowel movement but cannot eliminate any stool, or they are able to eliminate only a small amount. If they are able to have a bowel movement, there may be mucus in it, which is a fluid that moistens and protect passages in the digestive system. Some people with IBS experience diarrhea. People with diarrhea frequently feel an urgent and uncontrollable need to have a bowel movement. Other people with IBS alternate between constipation and diarrhea. Sometimes people find that their symptoms subside for a few months and then return, while others report a constant worsening of symptoms over time.


IBS symptoms include the following:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort for at least 12 weeks out of the previous 12 months. It is relieved by having a bowel movement.

  • Change in frequency/appearance of bowel movement.

  • Uncontrollable urge to have a bowel movement.

  • Difficulty or inability to have a bowel movement.

  • Mucus in the stool.

  • Bloating.

Bleeding, fever, weight loss, and persistent severe pain are not symptoms of IBS and may indicate other problems such as inflammation, or rarely, cancer.


The following have been associated with a worsening of IBS symptoms:

  • large meals

  • bloating from gas in the colon

  • medicines

  • wheat, rye, barley, chocolate, milk products, or alcohol

  • drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or colas

  • stress, conflict, or emotional upsets

Researchers have found that women with IBS may have more symptoms during their menstrual periods, suggesting that reproductive hormones can worsen IBS problems.

In addition, people with IBS frequently suffer from depression and anxiety, which can worsen symptoms. Similarly, the symptoms associated with IBS can cause a person to feel depressed and anxious.