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person with abdominal pain that could be IBS
By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

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. So, is it IBS or something else? We speak with an expert to uncover the six conditions that are often mistaken for IBS.

Consultant gastroenterologist Dr John O'Donohue shares his advice below.

Here are six other conditions that may be mistaken for IBS

1. Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that affects parts of the digestive system causing inflammation. It is one of the two most common types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and is thought to affect one in every 650 people in the UK, making it more common than many people realise.

Inflammatory bowel diseases are lifelong conditions that are estimated to affect around 500,000 people in the UK, although many people go undiagnosed, meaning that the true number could be higher.

Crohn’s disease can cause painful and debilitating symptoms that slowly erode the quality of life of those people that live with it. While there’s not currently a cure for Crohn’s disease, early diagnosis and prompt treatment can make it much easier to live with the condition.

While Crohn’s disease affects people of all ages, the symptoms most often start in childhood or adolescence. However, it can also manifest later in life, particularly among female smokers.

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.

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition which causes the colon and rectum to become inflamed.

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.

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.


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.

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.

If you have a family history of bowel cancer you may be at a higher risk of developing the disease. According to Bowel Cancer UK, 25% of people with bowel cancer have a family history of the disease.

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. According to Bowel Cancer UK, 25% of people with bowel cancer have a family history of the disease.

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.

Our consultant's view

We asked consultant gastroenterologist Dr John O'Donohue from The Sloane Hospital and 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.

Get help for your stomach problems today

Are you struggling with symptoms of IBS and would like to know whether you have the condition?

Book an appointment with a gastroenterologist online today.


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