Although these two conditions sound similar, there are profound differences. Here are overviews of both inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is actually an umbrella term for a group of conditions. In each, a person’s immune system attacks parts of the digestive system. According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two most common forms of this condition, with approximately 1.4 million people in the United States having some form. None is curable, but there are ways to manage and reduce symptoms.
Crohn’s disease can affect any section of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus, but usually targets the ileum (the end of the small intestine where it meets the large intestine). Ulcerative colitis, meanwhile, affects the large intestine and the rectum. Ulcerative colitis inflames only the innermost intestinal layer while Crohn’s disease can affect all intestinal layers.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a colon and/or rectal disorder that disrupts the movements of the intestines. In a healthy digestive system, the muscles within the intestines contract and relax to digest and move food. This condition disrupts those normal patterns, leading to digestive problems and discomfort. This condition, unlike those under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease, doesn’t cause permanent damage or inflammation, or increase the risk of cancer.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of each of these conditions have periods of flare-ups and remission. And, while there are similarities among the symptoms, each condition has distinguishing characteristics, with the Cleveland Clinic offering information about symptoms.
Crohn’s disease symptoms can include chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, often on the right lower side of the abdomen, tenderness in the same location, weight loss, fever, and the feeling of fullness in the lower right abdomen. With ulcerative colitis, diarrhea is the main symptom and it often becomes bloody. Sometimes, people with this condition experience abdominal pain and/or fever.
Irritable bowel syndrome typically causes cramping and/or abdominal pain (usually in the lower half of the abdomen), gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation (or alternating between the two). This condition does not involve bleeding.
Managing these Digestive Conditions
It’s important, no matter which of these conditions you have, to follow medical advice provided by your doctor. You may be prescribed medications, and it’s also important to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. For irritable bowel syndrome, the Mayo Clinic offers plenty of advice to manage the condition, including controlling stress and avoiding foods that trigger symptoms. Drink enough fluids, eat high fiber foods, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. You may discover that the following foods are problematic:
- High-gas foods
- FODMAPs (certain carbohydrates)
Crohn’s disease management includes taking medication as prescribed, avoiding smoking, minimizing stress, and keeping a food diary and then avoiding foods that cause flare-ups.
Ulcerative colitis management includes taking appropriate medications, exercising, managing stress, eating smaller meals, drinking enough fluids, avoiding smoking and problematic foods. They can include dairy products, foods in the cabbage family, spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. People with this condition may need to limit fiber intake, which includes steaming, baking or stewing fruits and vegetables before eating them.