What’s The Difference Between IBS and IBD?
If you're constantly feeling abdominal pain or you notice you bloat after eating certain foods, there's a good chance you've stumbled across the words IBS or IBD in your search for answers.
But with both displaying similar symptoms, it is easy to conceive that they are interchangeable terms. However, IBD and IBS are not the same condition and have many differences. For instance, they have very different severity levels and should be managed and assessed according to whether it is IBS or IBD you are dealing with.
In this article, we will talk through the difference between IBS and IBD, as well as how you can better manage IBS vs IBD symptoms.
What is IBS and what are the symptoms?
To answer the question, ‘is IBD the same as IBS?’, we first need to take a closer look at each condition.
Let’s start with the more common of the two afflictions: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This condition affects your digestive system, causing symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation.
While IBS is usually a lifelong problem, the symptoms tend to come and go over time and can last for days, weeks, or months. This makes IBS a very frustrating condition to live with, and it can have a big impact on your day-to-day life.
The main symptoms of IBS are:
Stomach pain or cramps: This pain is usually worse after eating, though it can improve after a poo.
Bloating: Your stomach might feel uncomfortably full and swollen.
Diarrhoea: You may have watery poo and, sometimes, need to poo suddenly.
Constipation: You may strain or experience pain when pooing, and often go days without pooing.
If you have IBS, you may also experience the following symptoms:
- Farting (flatulence).
- Passing mucus from your bottom.
- Feeling tired or a lack of energy.
- Feeling sick or nauseous.
- Problems urinating, like needing to pee often, sudden urges to pee, and feeling like you cannot fully empty your bladder.
What causes IBS and how to manage symptoms?
While the exact cause of IBS is currently unknown, there are a few things that can trigger a flare up. For example, certain foods and drinks, like alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods, are common causes for IBS flare-ups.
To identify these offending foods and drinks, doctors typically recommend that you closely monitor your diet with a food diary. This helps you see what food types cause bloating or abdominal pain, as well as those that might be having a negative effect on your gut health (this process is the same whether the doctor thinks you have IBS or IBD to potentially rule out IBD).
Many people with digestive issues trying to determine between IBS or IBD can also benefit from following a low FODMAP diet. This means you avoid foods that are not easily broken down by the gut. Types of FODMAP foods to minimise in this diet include apples, grapes, biscuits, bread, mushrooms, onions, ice cream, and most yoghurts. Then, in terms of food you can eat on a low FODMAP diet, meats, fish, eggs, and nuts are typically well tolerated by your gut.
What is IBD and what are the symptoms?
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a term used to describe conditions that cause intense stomach pain and diarrhoea. The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are both long-term conditions that can require medical attention to help manage any symptoms.
The main symptoms of IBD are:
- Diarrhoea that may contain blood or pus.
- Stomach pain.
- Feeling the need to poo frequently.
- Extreme tiredness.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss.
What causes IBD and how to manage symptoms?
For both IBD and IBS, it’s not entirely clear what causes these afflictions. Crohn’s disease can affect people of all ages, though symptoms typically start in childhood, while ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune condition (your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue).
In both cases, you may experience IBD symptoms that last for weeks or months at a time or consistently with no breaks. Furthermore, unlike IBS, IBD cannot be treated or prevented with specific diet changes– though it is still worth talking to your doctor or primary care physician about ways to modify your diet according to your condition.
Instead, your doctor will talk through your symptoms in detail, getting to grips with what they are, how often you experience them, and how much they disrupt your day-to-day life. With that information, they can then recommend the best course of medical treatment to manage your IBD symptoms and help improve your quality of life.
Even when diagnosed, much like IBS, IBD requires you to track your symptoms carefully to check whether further medical attention is required. For instance, you should see a GP for IBD if you experience the following:
- Diarrhoea that lasts for more than 7 days.
- Stomach pain or bloating that will not go away or keeps coming back.
- Blood or mucus in your poo.
- Extreme weight loss without trying.
Similarly, you should call 999 or go to A&E for the following IBD symptoms:
- You have severe stomach pain.
- You’re bleeding non-stop from the bottom.
- There’s a lot of blood in your poo (e.g., the toilet water turns red, or you see large blood clots).
- You’re vomiting blood, or your sick looks black (like coffee grounds or soil).
Comparing the differences between IBS and IBD
While the symptoms of IBD and IBS can be quite similar, they differ in severity, diagnosis, and treatment
For example, IBS is more common in the UK, with approximately 10% of people suffering its symptoms, compared to less than 1% (around 500,000 people) for IBD. However, when trying to compare IBS vs IBD, your symptoms will be your clearest indicator of which condition you are dealing with.
Take a look at the differences between IBS and IBD, below:
Differences between IBS and IBD
Affects the digestive system
Affects organs like the colon, rectum, or digestive system
Symptoms include: moderate to intense stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, and bloating
Symptoms include: severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea which may contain blood or pus, weight loss, and tiredness
Cause is currently unknown and there are no physical markers visible through internal examinations
Visible markers present in internal examinations
Does not require surgery
May require surgery
Classified as a condition – symptoms can often come and go
Classified as a disease – long term symptoms to manage
When and where to seek help for IBD and IBS
Whether you’ve spoken to your GP about potentially experiencing IBS or test results point to IBD, your diagnosis can feel stressful and confusing. Thankfully, there’s a wealth of resources available that offer help and guidance on IBS or IBD.
For example, if you have IBS and following a low FODMAP diet is not helping, your GP may refer you to an NHS dietitian. With their support, you can better track and identify the foods that might be causing flare ups of your symptoms.
You can also receive support for IBS by heading over to the IBS Network. This charity is dedicated to supporting those suffering the symptoms of IBS, offering a comprehensive self-care programme that provides in-depth advice and information on your condition.
There are similar charities for IBD too, such as Crohn’s & Colitis UK and the IBD Registry. Both of these organisations can provide help and support for your symptoms, as well as offer guidance for how to live with Crohn’s or Colitis.
Whether you want to read more about gut health or discover tasty and fresh recipes to start healing your gut, Benenden Health has you covered. Check out our Be Healthy hub for more information on understanding your stomach problems.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in September 2023. Next review date: September 2024.