Is it IBS or something else?

IBS symptoms can be similar to some other gastrointestinal problems, which can make it tricky to diagnose. We discuss the different conditions that can sometimes be mistaken for IBS.

As Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can have similar symptoms to other conditions, it’s important to rule out different possibilities before coming to the conclusion of IBS.

Consultant Gastroenterologist, Dr John O'Donohue, shares his advice on IBS and what else it might be. Watch the video below to hear his opinion.

What is IBS? And what are the symptoms?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition that’s associated with a range of abdominal issues, such as stomach cramps, diarrhoea and constipation.

IBS-related symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Loose, watery stools
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Frequent urge to get to the toilet
  • Feeling that you haven’t fully relieved yourself after bowel movements

Here are 6 other conditions that may be mistaken for IBS

1. Crohn’s Disease

What is it? Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that affects parts of the digestive system causing inflammation. It’s one of the two main forms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Although it’s a lifelong condition, you can have periods of good health, known as remission, as well as times where your symptoms flare-up, known as a relapse.

Common symptoms include:
  • Stomach ache
  • Diarrhoea
  • Blood in poo
  • Abdominal pain
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling unwell
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Weight loss

2. Ulcerative Colitis

What is it? Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition which causes the colon and rectum to become inflamed. Small ulcers develop on the lining of the colon and they can bleed or pus.

It’s the second form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Like Crohn’s disease, it’s a lifelong condition which has periods of remission and relapse. Both conditions can have similar symptoms.

Common symptoms include:
  • Diarrhoea, which may contain blood
  • Abdominal pain
  • Frequent need to empty bowels
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

3. Coeliac Disease


What is it? Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where the ingestion of gluten (a protein that’s found in wheat, rye and barley) causes the small intestine to become inflamed.

If you have coeliac disease you will need to avoid foods containing these proteins.

When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, their body attacks the small intestine which damages the villi (small finger-like structure which line the small intestine). Villi are vital in aiding digestion. When they become damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients into the body.

Common symptoms include:
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Flatulence (wind)
  • Constipation
  • Indigestion
  • Weight loss
  • Rash
  • Tiredness

4. Lactose Intolerance

What is it? Lactose intolerance is where someone is unable to digest lactose, which is a type of sugar found in dairy products.

In those with lactose intolerance, foods containing lactose can’t be broken down by enzymes and instead ferment in the colon. This is what causes the uncomfortable symptoms.

It’s important to be aware that lactose intolerance is not a food allergy. People with food allergies can experience life-threatening reactions from even the smallest of particles from their allergen.

Some people with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate small amounts; however this depends on the individual. Lactose intolerance can be diagnosed by carrying out a simple breath test.

Common symptoms include:
  • Flatulence (wind)
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick

5. Ovarian Cyst

What is it? Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that develop in the ovaries. This commonly happens during ovulation and they often go away on their own. Many women could have had an ovarian cyst and be completely unaware.

Although ovarian cysts can often go unnoticed, if symptoms do appear they can be quite similar to the symptoms of IBS.

If an ovarian cyst is suspected, an ultrasound can be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Common symptoms include:
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Change in periods
  • Bloating
  • Feeling full quickly
  • Difficulty emptying bowels

6. Bowel Cancer

What is it? Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer, affects the large bowel and rectum.

Although some of symptoms of bowel cancer are similar to IBS, there are some which are not. These include rectal bleeding, anaemia, pale skin, tiredness and unintentional weight loss.

If you have a family history of bowel cancer you may be at a higher risk of developing the disease. In fact, 25% of bowel cancers have a family history1

It’s important to note that over 90% of people with bowel cancer will have one of the following combinations of symptoms below2.

Common symptoms include:
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stools
  • Abdominal pain and bloating after eating

What to do next

If you’re experiencing any uncomfortable or particularly painful symptoms, it’s always a good idea to go and seek advice from a medical professional, especially if you feel your symptoms are not improving.

Getting a fast and accurate diagnosis can not only help to get you back on track quickly, but it can also offer great peace of mind.

The Consultant's View

We asked Consultant Gastroenterologist, Dr John O'Donohue from BMI The Sloane Hospital and BMI Blackheath Hospital for his opinion on IBS and other conditions it might be mistaken for.

Q: What else can IBS be mistaken for?

Dr John O'Donohue says...

Symptoms of IBS could be due to other things as well. So we want to make sure that we’re not dealing with Crohn’s Disease or Colitis, particularly if you’ve got mouth ulcers, painful joints or rashes on the skin.

We want to make sure it’s not coeliac disease. We do a blood test for that.

We also want to make sure it’s not an intolerance to lactose and fructose. And we can do a very simple breath test for that.

In women particularly who’ve got bloating and feeling that their tummy is getting bigger, we want to make sure it’s not an ovarian cyst. So we do an ultrasound looking for that.

And lastly but not least, we want to make sure it’s not due to bowel cancer. So particularly if you’ve got bleeding, or weight loss and you’ve got a family history or somebody with bowel cancer, you would need a colonoscopy to look at that one.

To find out more call us on 0800 157 7747
or make an online enquiry.


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