Healthy Living

What is the Difference Between IBS and IBD?

Although there are a few similarities between these two conditions, their symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, and outlook are quite different.

What Is the Difference Between IBS and IBD?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) both chronic conditions that can trigger similar symptoms, including abdominal pain and urgency to make a bowel movement. In the United States, IBS is extremely common, affecting around 25 to 45 million Americans. IBD is also common, but statistics reveal that a much lower number of Americans living with the condition - 1.6 million to be exact – in comparison to those living with IBS.

Although there are a few similarities between these two conditions, their symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, and outlook are quite different.


IBS is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. As opposed to IBD, this disorder is considered non-inflammatory in that it does not result in any evident signs of inflammation or damage in the gastrointestinal tract. This is why doctors call IBS a functional disease, because it triggers symptoms, but tests are not able to reveal any physical explanation for those complications.

Depending on the symptom that is most prevalent in any individual with IBS, they are classified as diarrhea-predominant, constipation-predominant, or pain-predominant. It remains unclear as to what exactly causes this disorder, but doctors believe that it seems to result from digestive problems and increased sensitivity in the digestive tract.  

IBD is broad term used to describe a group of inflammatory conditions – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, although it most commonly disturbs the small intestine and the first section of the colon. Conversely, ulcerative colitis affects the colon and the rectum, limiting itself to the innermost lining. “In about 10 percent of patients, it’s not possible to differentiate between UC and Crohn’s disease. In most patients the two can be distinguished by a colonoscopy. Also, UC does not affect the small intestine or the anus” said Dr. Steven Brant, director of the Meyerhoff Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Johns Hopkins.

IBD is considered to be a structural disease because underlying physical damage is responsible for triggering its symptoms. Doctors are not exactly sure what causes this condition, but they believe that it may be due to an issue with the immune system.


IBS and IBD share some similar symptoms, but others may be more distinctive of one condition than the other.

Some of the most common symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, gas, and mucus in the stool. They can vary from mild to severe.

In comparison, some of the most common symptoms of IBD include abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, bloody stools, sudden urgency to make a bowel movement, and unintended weight loss. Other symptoms may include constipation, fever, fatigue, joint pain, nausea, night sweats, and irregular periods in women.

The symptoms of both IBS and IBD tend to come and go in cycles. When symptoms suddenly worsen, individuals may experience what is known as flare-ups, which can last for several days. During periods of remission, no or few symptoms are present.

Risk factors

Both IBS and IBD have different risk factors.

IBS is more likely to develop in individuals under the age of 50. It is also more common in women than it is in men. Some of the risk factors of IBS include:

  • Having a family history of IBS;
  • Having received estrogen therapy before or after menopause;
  • Suffering from a mental health issue (anxiety, depression, and other issues);

IBD is more likely to develop in individuals under the age of 30. However, some individuals do not develop the condition until late adulthood. Some of the risk factors of IBD include:

  • Having a family history of IBD;
  • Being Caucasian or of Jewish descent;
  • Being a smoker;
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications;
  • Living in an industrialized country;


To diagnosis IBS, a doctor will review an individual’s symptoms, along with their medical history. He or she will also perform a physical exam. While there are no specific tests for diagnosing IBS, a doctor may order – blood tests, stool tests, endoscopy, colonoscopy or a hydrogen breath test – in order to rule out other health-related conditions.

Similar to IBS, in order to diagnosis IBD, a doctor will review an individual’s symptoms and medical history, as well as perform a physical exam. He or she may also order a few tests that can aid in diagnosis, including blood tests, stool tests, X-ray or CT scan, or endoscopy.


Treatment of IBS focuses on making lifestyle and dietary changes. A doctor may recommend:

  • Following a specific IBS-friendly diet;
  • Exercising on a regular basis;
  • Eating more fiber;
  • Avoiding foods that contain gluten;
  • Reducing and managing stress;
  • Getting a sufficient amount of sleep;
  • Going to talk therapy;

Some of the medications that may be prescribed to alleviate specific IBS symptoms include:

  • Anti-diarrheal drugs;
  • Laxatives;
  • Antispasmodics;
  • Antidepressants;

Treatment of IBD focuses on easing an individual’s symptoms and striving to maintain remission. That being said, a doctor will prescribe medication based on the severity of the IBD. Some of the different medications that may be prescribed to alleviate specific IBD symptoms include:

  • Aminosalicylates;
  • Immunomodulators;
  • Biologics;

Surgery is not necessary for IBS, although it may be reserved for more severe cases of IBD where it is necessary to remove or bypass damaged parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Nevertheless, with recent advancements in medications, surgery for IBD is becoming a much less common treatment approach.  


A few symptoms of IBS and IBD may overlap, but these two conditions are very different from one another and they require different treatment approaches. In IBD, the objective is to alleviate the inflammation that is responsible for triggering unwanted, chronic symptoms. In IBS, however, the disorder may not be treatable with medications because it does not have a recognizable cause. It is almost always aggravated by stress.

It is not possible to tell which condition is which simply by how an individual is feeling. This is why seeing a gastroenterologist is so important when it comes to getting the right type of help. He or she can diagnose the specific condition and offer the best treatment plan for managing symptoms and minimizing discomfort.

There is no cure for either IBS or IBD, but researchers are continuously looking for newer, more effective approaches to managing symptoms and preventing flare-ups of both conditions.