Do I Have IBS or Something Else?
Last updated: May 2023
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that can cause a range of different symptoms. These symptoms can come and go, and may change over time in terms of type and severity. The main symptom of IBS is pain and cramping in the abdomen, which is linked to a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation (or both). Other common symptoms include bloating, gas, heartburn, lower backache, the urgent need to use the bathroom, and/or a feeling of incompleteness after a bowel movement.
Conditions similar to IBS
There are many conditions similar to IBS since several of the symptoms that IBS causes are similar to the symptoms of other conditions, which makes IBS a difficult condition to diagnose. Many people with symptoms that are shared by IBS and other conditions similar to IBS may wonder if they have IBS or something else. Conditions similar to IBS include:
- inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD)
- celiac disease or lactose intolerance
- colon or ovarian cancers
If you have symptoms that suggest you may have IBS or something else, it is very important to talk with your healthcare provider. This is the best way to work toward finding out the cause(s) of your symptoms and starting an effective treatment plan for you. It is important not to try and diagnose yourself with IBS or any other condition.
Unfortunately, there is no specific blood test or diagnostic test that can be used to make a definite diagnosis of IBD. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms in detail, do a physical examination, and take your medical history. As part of the diagnostic process, the healthcare provider will try to rule out other conditions as the cause of your symptoms.
If you have been diagnosed with IBS and you develop any of the following symptoms, which are not caused by IBS, then you should talk with your healthcare provider:
- Bloody stools
- Increased need to urinate
- Excessive weight loss
- Nighttime symptoms that wake you up
- Recent use of antibiotics
IBS vs. IBD
Despite having similar names and overlapping symptoms, IBS and IBD are very different conditions. Both can cause diarrhea, cramping, and bathroom emergencies. The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Unlike IBS, however, these are conditions in which chronic inflammation inside of the digestive system causes damage to the inner lining of the intestines. IBD is also linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancers, while IBS is not.1,3
Unlike IBS, IBD does not generally cause mucus in the stool, gas, or bloating. The following symptoms are not caused by IBS, but can be caused by IBD:
- Bloody diarrhea or stools
- Weight loss
- Joint pain
IBS, celiac disease, or lactose intolerance?
Celiac disease and lactose intolerance are conditions that can also cause symptoms that are similar to those caused by IBS, such as:
- Abdominal pain or bloating
Celiac disease is a condition in which eating gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) causes the immune system to damage to the inner lining of the small intestine. This keeps the person’s body from being able to absorb enough nutrition from digested food. IBS is not related to the immune system, nor does it cause damage to the inside of the intestines. Celiac disease can cause symptoms that are not related to the digestive system (such as joint pain, osteoporosis, or dental problems), while IBS cannot cause symptoms outside the digestive tract.
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which a person’s body is not able to tolerate lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk and certain dairy products. Consuming lactose can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, and nausea between 30 minutes and 2 hours after eating or drinking it. The symptoms of lactose intolerance can usually be eliminated or reduced by avoiding dairy products, while the symptoms of IBS cannot generally be controlled as easily. Some people can have both IBS and lactose intolerance, but they are not the same thing.1,4
Other conditions similar to IBS
There are a range of other conditions that can cause symptoms that overlap with IBS symptoms, such as:
- hemorrhoids (can cause rectal bleeding)
- endometriosis (can cause abdominal pain)
- diverticulitis (can cause bloating)
- overuse of laxatives (can cause diarrhea)
- heartburn or gastrointestinal reflex disease (GERD)
- dyspepsia (stomach upset)
- intestinal parasites
- thyroid problems
Some types of cancers can cause symptoms that are similar to symptoms caused by IBS, such as colon cancer or ovarian cancer. However, they also cause symptoms that IBS does not. For example, colon cancer causes symptoms such as rectal bleeding and unintended weight loss.
Again, it is very important not to try and diagnose yourself with IBS or any other condition. Your healthcare provider will work with you to find the right diagnosis and develop the right treatment plan tailored for you and your symptoms.5,6
Do you have trouble trying to balance your diet with multiple illnesses?
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