Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same condition. While both of them affect the bowel and can cause abdominal discomfort, the causes and treatments differ greatly. Technically speaking, IBS is not even a disease, but rather a functional disorder which results in a handful of symptoms. This means that the digestive system is fully intact and looks normal, but it just doesn’t work the way it should. IBD, on the other hand, is a more serious diagnosis that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which can lead to a number of complications.

In terms of symptoms, IBS and IBD can actually present themselves quite similarly. The most common IBS symptoms include abdominal pain and cramping, gas and bloating, diarrhea and constipation, and mucus in the stool. In a similar way, IBD symptoms include pain and cramping, bloody stools and rectal bleeding, diarrhea and constipation, and sudden urges to have a bowel movement. In addition, IBD symptoms can also include unintended weight loss, irregular periods in females, feeling that the bowels are not empty after a bowel movement, fever and night sweats, and loss of appetite or nausea. Symptoms can of course vary considerably from person to person and often come and go in cycles, alternating between flare-ups and periods of remission.

Generally speaking, IBD is an autoimmune condition which causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, or GI tract. There are two main types – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – which are believed to be a result of problems with the immune system. Crohn’s disease usually affects the small intestine and the start of the colon, but it can cause patches of inflammation on any part of the GI tract and damage multiple layers of the wall. Ulcerative colitis causes continuous areas of inflammation in the colon and rectum, only on the innermost layer of the colon wall. Of the two, Crohn’s disease is more severe, but also less common.

The different demographics of people with IBS versus IBD are quite interesting. While both conditions affect individuals of all ages and both genders, females are more likely to have IBS while IBD has no gender preference. IBD is also most common in the Jewish population as well as people with origins in Northern Europe. Many IBS sufferers seek no medical attention, but those with IBD commonly do. In some situations, IBD is misdiagnosed as IBS for many years before the proper diagnosis is made. In other cases, these gut conditions are mistaken for diseases ranging from appendicitis and diverticulitis to chronic gut infections.

In order to diagnose either IBS or IBD, a doctor will usually start by reviewing the patient’s symptoms and medical history, then they will perform a physical exam. While there are no specific tests for IBS, common tests for IBD include an X-ray or CT scan, an endoscopy or a colonoscopy, and blood tests or stool tests. In terms of treatment, IBS is mostly focused on lifestyle and dietary changes, whereas IBD involves the use of medications to reduce gut inflammation. Neither IBS not IBD have a cure, but research is ongoing to find more effective ways to manage symptoms and also prevent flare-ups.