IBS vs. IBD: It's More Than Just a Letter of Difference

by Mandy Patterson Patient Expert

It’s becoming more and more common to see and hear about people struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But did you know these two conditions are not the same thing? In this article, you’ll learn not only the difference between the two conditions, but also their symptoms and how they’re treated.

What is IBS?

IBS is a syndrome (collection of symptoms) that affects the large intestine but doesn’t harm the intestines themselves. It’s a functional disorder of the intestines, meaning it interferes with their ability to do their job in the body. Fortunately, IBS is treatable.

IBS symptoms

Symptoms of IBS can typically include the following:

  • Bloating

  • Gas

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Urgent bowel movements

Typically, with these symptoms, having a bowel movement relieves any discomfort or urgency. Diarrhea is a symptom of IBS, but not everyone experiences it.

IBS diagnosis

There is no test to determine whether you have IBS or not. However, your doctor may give you other tests to rule out other possibilities — this is because symptoms of IBS often overlap with symptoms of other digestive conditions.

It’s important to speak with your doctor about your symptoms. They should perform a physical exam and ask about your history. If you have certain symptoms and other conditions are ruled out, you may receive an IBS diagnosis.

IBS treatment

IBS treatment can include over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, and/or making changes to your diet and lifestyle.

You may consider avoiding foods that trigger any symptoms, eating more fiber, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One diet people with IBS may find helpful is the low FODMAP diet.

There are also specific medications and prescriptions that can be used in the treatment of IBS, according to the NIH. These medications help to relax your colon and slow the movement of waste through your bowels. Additionally, your doctor may suggest you take Imodium (loperamide) to help slow down your bowel movements.

Once you make these changes, your IBS symptoms should resolve. However, be aware that they can come back if you stop taking medication or eat a food that triggers your symptoms.

What is IBD?

IBD is the umbrella term for two conditions: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. These conditions are chronic, lifelong diseases in which the intestinal tract is inflamed or ulcerated. IBD, while treatable to an extent, has no cure.

IBD symptoms

Symptoms of IBD can include:

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

  • Severe abdominal pain and cramping

  • Blood and/or mucous in the stool

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • Anemia

  • Vitamin deficiencies

  • Reduced appetite

  • Dehydration

Unlike with IBS, having a bowel movement doesn’t typically provide relief from these IBD symptoms. They are usually prolonged and, if not treated, can lead to life-threatening complications.

IBD diagnosis

You can only be diagnosed with IBD after you undergo a series of tests. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, a colonoscopy is sometimes all that’s required for IBD diagnosis. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist views your entire colon and takes small samples of tissue for biopsy. However, some patients might also require a blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, or upper endoscopy to make a diagnosis.

IBD treatment

There are a variety of ways to treat IBD, depending on the severity of the disease, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. The most common first-line treatment is anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids and mesalamine.

If these measures don’t work, a gastroenterologist might suggest a biologic medicine, like Remicade (infliximab) or Humira (adalimumab), to reduce inflammation. These medications are usually given through injection or by infusion and can cause other complications because they weaken the immune system.

If biologics fail to reduce the inflammation, an IBD patient might have to explore the route of getting their colon removed and having either an ostomy or j-pouch.

What’s the difference between IBS and IBD?

While IBS and IBD are similar in abbreviations, there are stark differences between the two conditions:

  • IBS is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms) with unknown cause, whereas IBD is a chronic disease.

  • IBS is more common than IBD. However, it’s possible to have both conditions.

  • IBS can sometimes be treated with OTC medication, whereas IBD can be treated with a variety of medications, including ones given via injection or infusion, and may require major surgery.

  • Bowel movements can relieve IBS symptoms, whereas bowel movements don’t relieve IBD symptoms.

No matter what your ultimate diagnosis may be, you should discuss any symptoms you might be experiencing with your doctor. If left untreated, both IBS and IBD can cause other issues that affect your health.

These are two different conditions with different sets of symptoms that affect patients differently. In either case, it’s important to remember to treat both IBS and IBD as separate and serious conditions.

Mandy Patterson
Meet Our Writer
Mandy Patterson

Mandy is a patient expert and advocate for ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. She started down the road to advocacy after receiving an ulcerative colitis diagnosis in 2013, after experiencing complications of UC since 2010. She’s a full-time technical writer and technical writing instructor for Missouri State University, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in professional writing. For her master’s thesis she wrote about the quality patient education materials for those diagnosed with UC, and the need for technical writers in the IBD medical field. Mandy is a Social Ambassador for the IBD HealthCentral Facebook page.