Irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis are chronic conditions that affect the digestive tract. These conditions may have similar symptoms, but there are important differences in how they’re treated.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis are conditions that affect the gut and cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as stomach cramping and abdominal pain. While their symptoms may be similar, their causes and treatments are different.
Because both conditions can greatly affect a person’s quality of life, a correct diagnosis is critical for appropriate symptom management. Keep reading to learn more about how these conditions are alike, how they differ, and what tests can help tell them apart.
Ulcerative colitis, like Crohn’s disease, falls under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs). Ulcerative colitis is characterized by chronic inflammation caused by immune system reactions to bacteria within the colon and other triggers. Symptoms of colitis may also affect other parts of the body outside the gut.
These conditions have different causes and potential long-term effects. As a result, they also have notably different treatments. While it’s technically possible to have both IBS and colitis, these two conditions aren’t connected.
Both IBS and IBD cause gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea. Likewise, both conditions are chronic, which means they’re long lasting and don’t have a cure. Both IBS and IBD can be managed with appropriate treatment.
- both may be linked to genetics
- both may start at
- both may get progressively worse without treatment
- both may result in psychological distress
The abbreviations — IBS and IBD — are also similar and may cause confusion.
You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, especially with the use of the terms “male” and “female.”
Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.
Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.
IBS is a syndrome, while ulcerative colitis is a disease. This means that IBS is a group of symptoms, while colitis is a condition with an identifiable root cause.
There are also differences in the signs and symptoms:
|Signs and symptoms||Ulcerative colitis||IBS|
|Gastrointestinal|| • watery, bloody, or mucousy stools|
• frequent bowel movements
• loss of appetite
|• mucousy stools|
• fecal incontinence
|Elsewhere in the body||• weight loss|
• ulcers in the mouth
• eye irritation
• bone density issues
• skin changes
• liver issues
|• urinary symptoms|
• back pain
Other major differences include what triggers the symptoms, the average age of onset, and how each condition is treated.
|Other differences||Ulcerative colitis||IBS|
|Age and sex||males and females, primarily ages ||more often affects females, ages |
|Triggers||triggers are still under investigation||triggers include certain foods or stress|
|Complications||potential long-term effects include permanent damage to the colon or colon cancer||permanent damage not associated with IBS|
|Treatment||• medication to address inflammation and induce remission|
|• lifestyle and diet changes|
• therapy for mental health
Yes, the symptoms of IBS and IBD can be similar and difficult to tell apart on the surface.
One of the biggest differences between the two conditions is that ulcerative colitis causes visible signs of damage to the digestive tract, whereas IBS doesn’t cause these visible signs. Imaging tests and other diagnostic tools can help with a correct diagnosis.
There’s no specific test that’s used to diagnose IBS.
Instead, a doctor will record your symptoms and perform additional testing (stool samples, blood tests, imaging, etc.) to rule out other conditions, such as IBD or colon cancer.
When to seek immediate medical care
There are many more conditions that may cause similar gastrointestinal issues. Some of these conditions are relatively benign (such as a stomach bug), while others may be more concerning (such as colorectal cancer).
Seek emergency help, by calling 911 or local emergency services, if you experience:
Make an appointment with a doctor If you experience gastrointestinal symptoms that concern you.
While some features of IBS and colitis are similar, they’re different conditions with different treatments. Correct diagnosis is important to getting the right treatment and — most importantly — preventing possible complications or permanent damage.