It’s easy to confuse the two, as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) often present with similar symptoms, like abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating or a change in bowel habit.

It is important to understand the difference between the IBS and IBD and to get an accurate diagnosis, because they are very different conditions, and the treatments are not the same. Knowing if it’s IBS or IBD will allow you to effectively manage your condition.

What is IBS?

IBS is a common condition that affects 1 in 5 Australians, with more women affected than men. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means there is a disturbance in the way the bowel functions.

IBS does not cause inflammation, and there is no sign of disease or abnormality on inspection of the bowel. With IBS, there is no increased risk of bowel cancer, or developing IBD.

Symptoms can range from mild through to disabling. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation (sometimes both at the same time). Symptoms can be triggered by certain foods, stress, hormonal changes and some medications. IBS symptoms are often temporarily relieved after a bowel movement.

Most often, treatment focuses on dietary and lifestyle changes, including stress reduction.

What is IBD?

IBD is an umbrella term for diseases that involve inflammation of the digestive tract. The two most common are Crohn’s disease (inflammation is usually at the end of the small intestine) and ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the large intestine). IBD tends to affect women and men equally.

Those with IBD are thought to have dysregulated immune systems that cause inflammation in the bowel. This damage can be seen on inspection of the bowel and can be permanent. If not detected and treated early, IBD can also cause more serious complications. Those with IBD have a small increased risk of bowel cancer, but early intervention can prevent life-threatening situations.

Symptoms include diarrhoea, bleeding ulcers, abdominal pain, bloating, unintentional weight loss and anaemia.

Treatment often involves medication to reduce inflammation and the risk of a flare-up.

How do I know if my symptoms are IBS, IBD, or something else?

Your doctor will take a full medical history, ask you about any alarm signs (which can include rectal bleeding, abdominal mass, nocturnal symptoms, family history of IBD, severe pain or discharge, new symptoms or unexplained weight loss), and will order any necessary blood or stool tests.

They may suggest further investigation with colonoscopy, especially if IBD is suspected. It should also be noted that those diagnosed with IBD, can also have IBS. The two conditions can co-exist.

Both IBS and IBD can have a huge impact on one’s quality of life. Going out for meals, or not knowing where the nearest bathroom is, can cause much anxiety, not to mention the symptoms themselves causing pain and discomfort. 

Whilst both IBS and IBD are not curable, they are manageable. Early diagnosis will ensure a suitable treatment plan is in place so your symptoms don’t control your life.

Disclaimer – This article is for general information and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional advice. Always consult a registered health professional regarding any health-related diagnosis or treatment options.