• Masarat Jilani

3 Ways to Distinguish IBS from IBD

With only one letter to separate IBS from IBD, it can be difficult to know the difference between these bowel conditions. Especially since you can have both! So, what are the key differences and how can you learn to distinguish IBS from IBD.

IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome whereas IBD is an inflammatory bowel disease. Both conditions can severely affect your quality of life. Neither condition is “worse” than another but some cases of IBD can be life-threatening whereas IBS is not. Both IBD and IBS are also umbrella terms for specific conditions for example if you have IBS you can be subdivided into IBS-D, IBS-M or IBS-C. Similarly, the two main types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’ disease. And with both these conditions, you can have symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation- that’s why it can be confusing to know the difference.

Diagnosing IBS vs IBD takes the expertise of a doctor but here are three main differences between the two.

IBS vs IBD risk factors

IBS is more common in women and can occur after an episode of food poisoning. It is more common if someone in your family has the condition and is also associated with stress, anxiety or depression since these factors affect your gut. IBS can also occur after someone has had IBD. But there is no evidence that having IBS increases your risk of IBD.

IBD like IBS is more common if a relative has the condition and if you have taken NSAID medication like ibuprofen regularly. Crohn’s disease is more common in smokers. IBD can be linked to conditions outside of the digestive system such as joint conditions and some eye conditions.

IBS vs IBD symptoms

Almost all the symptoms of IBS can be present in IBD, these include:

  • Diarrhoea or constipation

  • Tummy pain

  • Bloating

  • Flare-ups

But there are some symptoms which are unique to IBD and very rare in those with IBS, these include:

  • Blood in your poop

  • Weight loss

  • Waking up in the night to open your bowels

  • Joint pains

IBS vs IBD Test results

Diagnosis of IBD is made following a series of tests starting with blood tests to check for deficiencies. IBS should not cause any change in the way you absorb nutrients whereas IBD does, that’s why in IBS the test should be normal. Stool samples are also commonly taken to make sure you don’t have an infection.

To fully diagnose IBD scans like an MRI or CT scan may be needed or a doctor may need to look at colonoscopy results. In IBS, all these scans would be normal. Naturally, IBD treatment would also differ from IBS.

Does this mean that IBS is not real? Quite the opposite! The way to diagnose IBS is based on a series of criteria and not on a diagnostic test such as a scan or a blood test. This isn’t because IBS is not real but because IBS is complex and currently available tests are too simplistic. Also, we don’t know fully what causes IBS although there are a lot of possible causes- that’s why it is difficult to design a test. IBS may be caused by different processes in different people. But, luckily, the latest research does show that IBS can be managed, including through CBT programs, and these allow you to take your life back.

The human body is complex, that’s why it’s always important to speak to a doctor about your symptoms and they will assess you and take you through the process of finding out the cause - so don’t be afraid to see your doctor and ask about whether your symptoms could be IBD or IBS.

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