IBS flares can last hours to weeks. It’s a chronic condition that includes periods of flares and times when symptoms settle. You can try these strategies to help manage IBS.

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition affecting between 7 and 21% of people in the United States. You may experience symptoms that include gassiness, bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits.

These symptoms can last hours, days, or weeks and the length of a flare-up depends on what may have caused it. Management can be challenging, and there may be no clear reason you can determine what causes symptoms to appear or disappear.

This article will explain more about why these IBS flare-ups exist, how long they can last, and what to expect.

The length of an IBS attack can vary greatly, and it may depend on the cause.

There are some common causes among people with IBS. These include:

  • Stress: You may find that when you’re stressed or anxious, your symptoms get worse. Up to 60% of people with IBS first developed it or had symptoms flare during a high-stress time.
  • Travel: Being away changes meal and activity routines, especially if you’re in a different time zone. Even people without IBS might have digestive changes when traveling.
  • Changes in medication: Some medications affect digestion. If you’re starting a new medication, it’s smart to ask about possible digestive side effects.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can irritate the digestive system and may trigger symptoms in some people.
  • Changes in fiber intake: Eating more or less fiber than usual can affect your bowel movements.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant for your whole body. Sources such as coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, or energy drinks may worsen IBS symptoms.
  • Sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols are sugar substitutes found in many no-sugar-added products. They are only partially digested and can cause cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
  • Spicy food: Capsaicin is the compound responsible for the heat of hot peppers. Spicy foods are shown to worsen IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain.
  • High fat foods: Foods that are high in fat digest more slowly, which can worsen IBS symptoms in some people.
  • Hormones: Some people with IBS notice an increase in symptoms before or during their period. Shifts in hormone levels can change how your body perceives pain in your digestive system.

Depending on your body’s response to the trigger, symptoms can last hours, days, weeks, or months. It will really depend on what has caused your symptoms.

If you’re experiencing stress for weeks or months on end, you may have more ongoing symptoms. Eating a particular meal can cause digestive upset, and symptoms can last a few hours or up to a few days afterward.

Can IBS last for weeks, months, or years?

IBS is a chronic condition. This means that it never goes away, but it can be managed.

The way that you manage your IBS is likely to change over time. As you learn more about your symptoms and any patterns, the approach you take to manage your IBS can change.

As with many chronic conditions, there will be times when your symptoms are more disruptive. At other times, symptoms will feel more stable and under control.

IBS symptoms can be a little different for everyone. A flare is when you start having symptoms, your symptoms get worse, or there’s a change in your symptoms.

IBS symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and bowel changes.

Your symptoms may depend on the specific type of IBS you have. There are three subtypes:

  • IBS-D: Diarrhea is the main bowel symptom.
  • IBS-C: Constipation is the main bowel symptom.
  • IBS-M: Your body alternates between constipation and diarrhea.

You can read more about the IBS subtypes here, and learn more about how your symptoms may vary and last longer periods of time depending on many factors.

The strategies you use to manage symptoms will depend on your symptoms. Different approaches will work for different symptoms.

Here are some things that can help:

  • Dietary changes: Consider changing fiber intake, avoiding high fat or spicy foods, and limiting alcohol and caffeine.
  • Probiotics: Some research has shown the benefit of probiotic supplements in managing IBS.
  • Peppermint oil: There are some studies suggesting that peppermint essential oil may be helpful for IBS. One study also showed that a placebo was just as effective, but the improvement was significant for both peppermint oil and placebo.
  • Stress management: There’s a major link between stress and IBS. Find ways to manage your stress. Consider working with a therapist if you need some extra support.
  • Stay hydrated: Make sure you drink enough fluids. This can help replenish fluids lost due to diarrhea and also help to manage constipation.
  • Medications: Talk with your healthcare professional about medications to treat specific symptoms.

Living with IBS can be really disruptive to your sleep. There may be a link between the two.

A meta-analysis from 2018 found that 37.6% of people with IBS also live with a sleep disorder. A lack of sleep can also make IBS symptoms worse.

Here are some strategies for dealing with symptoms at night.

  • Practice relaxation techniques: Do things before bed to help you fall asleep. Try meditation, deep breathing, relaxing music, gentle stretching, or a warm bath.
  • Heat: If you’re dealing with abdominal pain or cramping, try using a hot water bottle to soothe your symptoms.
  • Use medications as directed: If you find your symptoms get worse at night, talk with your healthcare professional. There may be a way to take medications that will work better for you.

If you wake up to have a bowel movement, you may want to discuss this issue with your healthcare team. Having a bowel movement overnight is not a normal part of living with IBS. It’s important to explore if there’s something else going on.

IBS is a chronic condition. There will be times when symptoms are under control and other times when symptoms flare. There are many possible things that can cause different symptoms for longer or shorter periods of time.

Consider keeping a food and symptom journal to see if you notice any possible patterns. This can help you become more aware of what might be causing flares. You may be able to prevent symptoms. If you’re having frequent, unpredictable flares, consider working with a healthcare professional.