When should you see a doctor for IBS?

When Should You See a Doctor for IBS?

Belly pain and changes in stool are common issues. For many people, these happen every once in a while and go away on their own. For others, these symptoms can happen regularly or never go away completely. If you have abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation often, or if these symptoms make it hard to do daily tasks, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be the cause.1,2

Whether you are looking for answers for the first time or have had IBS for years, it can be hard to know when to seek treatment. Common reasons to visit the doctor when you have IBS include:2-5

  • Receive a diagnosis
  • Adjust treatment plans if symptoms are not controlled
  • Investigate new or concerning "alarm symptoms"
  • Address any changes in symptoms or new issues

Diagnosing IBS

If you have gut pain or changes in your stool that prevent you from doing normal activities, it may be time to see your doctor. Both primary care doctors and gastrointestinal specialists (gastroenterologists) can diagnose and treat IBS.1-3

However, there is no one test that confirms a person has IBS. Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms, family history, medicines, and diet to decide whether you might have IBS.1-3

Before going to the doctor, it can be helpful to keep a symptom diary. This is a record of the issues you are having and how often they occur. Common symptoms of IBS that people often see a doctor for include:1-3,6

  • Cramping, stabbing, or throbbing belly pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Gassiness
  • Mucus in stool
  • Feeling like you have not completed a full bowel movement

Some doctors use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose IBS. Under these rules, a person must have had abdominal pain at least once a week for the past 3 months. Two or more of the following must also be true of their pain:2,7,8

  • Related to having a bowel movement
  • Occurred alongside a change in the number of times a person is having bowel movements
  • Occurred alongside a change in the way the stool looks

Being prepared with a symptom diary can help your doctor decide if your symptoms fit the criteria over time. It can also help determine what subtype of IBS you might have. The main subtypes are IBS-constipation, IBS-diarrhea, and IBS-mixed.2,8

Adjusting treatment plans

There is no cure for IBS. Most people with the condition use a mix of approaches to manage their symptoms, including:5,6

There are many combinations of treatments and new options you can try. If your IBS symptoms are worsening or are not controlled by your current plan, it may be time to visit your doctor. This is another case where bringing a symptom diary might be helpful. You and your doctor can review it to see which approaches are helping and which are not.5,6

Investigating alarm symptoms

There are some symptoms that require a doctor’s attention that are not typically related to IBS. Sometimes these are referred to as “alarm symptoms.” Having one or more of these does not mean you definitely have a serious underlying health issue. But these symptoms need to be looked into sooner rather than later.2,4

Common alarm symptoms include:2,4

  • New symptoms after age 50
  • Symptoms that interfere with sleep
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts that can cause pale skin, trouble breathing, or low energy)
  • Blood in the stool (can be bright red or turn the stool black)

It is especially important to consult your doctor about any of these symptoms if you have a family history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or gastrointestinal cancer like colon cancer.2,4

Addressing other potential issues

IBS does not cause other bowel diseases or cancers. But it is possible for other bowel-related issues to come up alongside IBS. Check in with your doctor if you notice a worsening of symptoms and have:2,4

  • Recently taken antibiotics
  • Recently traveled (especially to another country)
  • Been in contact with someone who is sick
  • Been drinking water that may not be clean
  • A family history of other gastrointestinal issues like Celiac disease or IBD

Overall, you know your body best. There is no wrong time to check in with your healthcare team. Some people may prefer to have regular checkups even when their symptoms are controlled. Others may wait until symptoms worsen or a concerning issue arises. As long as you have a way to get in touch with your team when you need it, when and why is up to you.

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