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Difference Between IBS and IBD: 5 Symptoms of Each Condition

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The differences between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can be confusing. Let’s explore.

Both are long-term conditions that impact the gut and can have a negative impact on one’s lifestyle. They can have similar symptoms and can be mistaken for one another at first blush. But there are significant distinctions, and the two soundalike ailments require vastly different treatments.

People who experience digestive discomfort on a regular basis should get an accurate diagnosis from a doctor rather than attempting to self-diagnose the problem. Only by seeing a doctor about gastrointestinal problems can patients be assured that proper treatment is administered.

What’s in an acronym

Despite their similar acronyms and the sharing of a word in their names, IBS and IBD are not the same. But that doesn’t stop some people from using the two terms interchangeably to describe abdominal pain, cramping and urgent bowel movements.

It's important to understand the key differences between the two gastrointestinal disorders.

IBD describes a broad spectrum of autoimmune diseases that cause inflammation of the intestines. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the most common.

With IBD, the immune system responds incorrectly to environmental triggers and mistakenly goes on the attack, taking aim at the digestive tract in particular. Symptoms include:

  1. persistent diarrhea
  2. abdominal pain
  3. bloody stools
  4. weight loss
  5. fatigue

The exact cause is unknown. People who have it face an Increased risk for colon cancer, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

Most people diagnosed with IBD are under the age of 35. However, a second peak of diagnosis tends to occur in people who are in their 60s.

An estimated 3.1 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. That number amounts to 1.3% of the country’s population, the Centers for Disease Control reports.

IBS is classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which is a fancy way of describing some type of disturbance in bowel function. Unlike IBD, it does not involve inflammation. That is the critical distinction.

Symptoms if IBS can vary from person-to-person and are frequently triggered by stress or the consumption of large meals. The most common symptoms are

  1. abdominal pain
  2. constipation alternating with diarrhea
  3. mucus in the stool
  4. gassiness
  5. abdominal bloating

IBS is one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions by physicians in the United States. It affects about 15% of adults, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.

The cause of IBS is not fully understood. Researchers believe that stress can aggravate IBS, which lends credence to the theory that the syndrome is caused by a disturbance between the brain and the gut.

Treating IBD and IBS

There is currently no cure for IBD, which is considered a lifelong condition. The goal of treatment is to reduce the inflammation that leads to symptoms, reduce flare-ups, and maintain remission.

The initial step in treatment is often anti-inflammatory drugs. Corticosteroids are also prescribed to induce remission.

If medications failed to control the inflammation, the intestines can become damaged over time. Such damage could require surgery.

When it comes to IBS, understanding the nature of the condition and making changes to diet and lifestyle are keys to addressing the problem.

Most treatment for IBS is focused on changing the type of food you eat and decreasing your level of stress, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.

People with IBS should try avoiding the following foods:

  • beans
  • onions
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • other foods that can trigger gas.

Other IBS patients have trouble with:

  • wheat
  • dairy products
  • some fruits like bananas, apples, apricots, peaches, pears and plums

Psychotherapy can also help reduce the severity of IBS symptoms, according to the National Institute of Health.

Learn more about gastroenterology at Ochsner.

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