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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: How to Treat It

Making changes to your diet can help relieve symptoms as can taking medications.
An intestine with spikes in the interior to show irritation
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Written by Adam Pont, MD, PhD.
Gastroenterology Fellow, New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia
Medically reviewed by
Last updated April 29, 2024

IBS quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have IBS.

Care Plan


First steps to consider

  • It’s important to always see a healthcare provider to get a treatment plan.
  • IBS can sometimes be treated at home with OTC medications, diet and lifestyle changes, and natural remedies.
  • You may need to see a doctor in-person to get an initial diagnosis and testing.
See care providers

Emergency Care

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Call 911 or go to the ER if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • ​​You have signs of dehydration (extreme thirst, less frequent urination)

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition affecting the gut, specifically the large intestine. It's common and causes abdominal pain along with changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhea and/or constipation. Depending on the symptoms, there are three types of IBS.

While there is no cure for IBS, treatments can help manage symptoms. It's important to note that IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and does not increase your risk of colon cancer.

What does an IBS attack feel like?

Pro Tip

A misconception about IBS is that it’s “all in your head.” Although IBS symptoms are likely influenced by interactions between the brain and gut, the symptoms and disease are very real and bothersome. —Dr. Adam Pont

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the gut, primarily the large intestine, causing a range of symptoms that can be uncomfortable and disruptive to daily life. There are three types of IBS, each with distinct symptoms: constipation-predominant (IBS-C), diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), or mixed (IBS-M), which alternates between constipation and diarrhea.

Regardless of the type, all forms of IBS cause abdominal pain or discomfort at least once a week. This pain can range from mild to severe and can occur in any part of the abdomen. In addition to abdominal pain, people with IBS may also experience changes in their bowel movements. This can include having more frequent bowel movements (more than three daily) or less frequent (less than three a week).

If you have constipation-predominant IBS, you may have to push harder to get stool out, or feel like you can’t empty your bowel completely. If you have diarrhea-predominant IBS, you may experience very loose, watery stool. People with IBS-M may alternate between these two extremes. In addition to changes in bowel movements, you may also feel sudden urges to have bowel movements, causing you to rush to the toilet.

Other common symptoms of IBS include bloating, gas, and a feeling of fullness or discomfort in the abdomen. The appearance and texture of your stool may also change, becoming very hard and pebble-like (constipation) or very loose and watery (diarrhea).

IBS is a chronic condition, which means that symptoms can last for months or years. However, symptoms may come and go over time, with periods of relief followed by periods of increased symptoms. Although there is no cure for IBS, there are treatments available that can help to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. These treatments may include lifestyle changes, such as dietary modifications and stress management techniques, as well as medications.

Main symptoms

  • Belly pain more than once a week, often related to bowel movements.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Constipation.
  • Stool becomes frequent (more than 3 times a day) or less frequent (less than 3 times a week).

Other IBS symptoms you may have

  • Needing to push harder to get stool out.
  • Feeling like there is stool remaining, even after straining to have a bowel movement.
  • Sudden urge to have a bowel movement, possibly causing you to rush to the toilet.
  • Abdominal bloating.
  • Excess gas.
  • Worsening of symptoms after eating.

IBS causes

Although the exact causes of IBS are not known, research suggests that communication between the brain and the gut is not functioning normally.

Food may move too slowly through the digestive tract, for example, or you may feel higher levels of pain when there is a normal amount of gas.

Though it’s unclear how, psychological distress (such as trauma, anxiety, or depression) may play a role.

Psychological stress or trauma may lead to changes in the gut lining or affect the types of healthy bacteria that are in the gut. This could possibly lead to more intestinal infections or inflammation, which may change the way the intestines contract and move, causing IBS symptoms.

Dr. Rx

A collaborative approach where you and your doctor discuss your symptoms and potential treatments will be most successful. It will make it easier for them to help you. And, hopefully, make you feel more confident about the treatment plan. —Dr. Pont

What is the best treatment for irritable bowel syndrome?

Your doctor will discuss your diet to see if any foods or drinks trigger your symptoms that you should avoid. They may recommend fiber supplements, regular exercise such as walking or yoga, and ways to manage life stressors (including getting enough sleep).

If these do not control your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medication.

Options include anti-spasmodics (for belly pain and cramps), gut-specific antibiotics for diarrhea, and antidepressants to treat anxiety or depression.

There are different medications specifically for treating IBS-C and IBS-D.

Your doctor may also suggest seeing a specialist for cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help with managing stress and dealing with IBS symptoms.

Ready to treat your IBS?

We show you only the best treatments for your condition and symptoms—all vetted by our medical team. And when you’re not sure what’s wrong, Buoy can guide you in the right direction.See all treatment options
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Risk factors

  • More common in women.
  • Tends to affect people under the age of 50.
  • Having had infectious gastroenteritis.
  • Having mental health issues (particularly anxiety and depression).
  • Having certain chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • People with close relatives who have IBS may have an increased risk of it.

Can IBS be left untreated?

If you are having symptoms of IBS, see your doctor. Depending on your symptoms and medical history, they may refer you to a specialist in digestive diseases (gastroenterologist).

It is especially important if you notice any of the following “red flag” symptoms. These may mean you have a disease other than IBS.

  • Weight loss (if not dieting)
  • Blood in the stool (you can see it or found in a stool test)
  • Fever
  • Abdominal lump or mass
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Anemia due to low iron
  • Waking up at night because of your symptoms
  • Symptoms started recently and are quickly worsening
  • You are older than 50 and have never been screened for colon cancer
  • Antibiotic use within the last 6 months
  • Family members have had colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Pro Tip

IBS does not increase your risk of colon cancer. And you will not need more frequent colon cancer screening than a similar patient who does not have IBS. —Dr. Pont

Does IBS go away?

Treatment for IBS will not cure the disease but can significantly improve your symptoms.

Follow your doctor's advice about diet and stress management. And take all medication as directed. Also, keep track of your symptoms so treatment can be adjusted as needed.

A good relationship with your doctor is key for successfully managing your IBS symptoms. You should trust your doctor and feel they are taking your condition seriously.

Share your story
Once your story receives approval from our editors, it will exist on Buoy as a helpful resource for others who may experience something similar.
The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Le obtained his MD from Harvard Medical School and his BA from Harvard College. Before Buoy, his research focused on glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. Outside of work, Dr. Le enjoys cooking and struggling to run up-and-down the floor in an adult basketball league.

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