Can IBS just suddenly start?

Medically reviewed by Beth Holloway, RN, M. Ed
2020-07-01

You’ve always gone to the bathroom (had a bowel movement) every morning, on schedule. Now it may be days between bowel movements. Or, you have to get to the bathroom quickly with diarrhea. You have embarrassing gas. Sometimes you feel bloated. And, through all of this you have abdominal (belly) discomfort. Are these symptoms irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a common functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder which means it changes how the bowel or intestines function or work. And, the symptoms of IBS, like diarrhea or belly (abdominal) pain, are similar to many other GI conditions.

Can IBS just suddenly start? 

The simple answer is Yes. Like any medical condition, IBS has to start at some point-one day you have normal bowel movements and the next day you start to notice changes. Maybe you start having diarrhea and gas or constipation and bloating. After a few days you still have symptoms. But, is it IBS?

IBS Symptoms

First, the gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms of IBS are: constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort or pain. It is also common to have underlying psychological symptoms, like anxious or depressed feelings, with the GI symptoms. 

Still, is it IBS? The more complicated answer is “Maybe.” In other words, it may be difficult to know. Even doctors may find it challenging to diagnose IBS. This is partly because of the characteristics of the condition: 

  • Symptoms often change over time - this may be from day-to-day or they may get better for a while and then get worse. 

  • Symptoms are similar to other GI disorders. This also makes it hard to diagnose.

  • Symptoms vary from person-to-person. They may range from mild to disabling.

  • There are no diagnostic tests for IBS - no lab test, no imaging, no other type of test. 

Is This IBS? The Answer: Yes

IBS has symptoms that are similar to many other GI conditions. Many doctors diagnose IBS based on the Rome IV criteria. It is very specific and means a person has had:

Recurring abdominal pain at least once a week in the last three months. The pain is associated with at least two of these criteria:

  1. The pain is related to bowel movements

  2. The bowel movements occur more or less often than usual

  3. The stool is different than usual (harder, softer)

When making an IBS diagnosis with this criteria, doctors also include the length of time a person has had symptoms before IBS was diagnosed - in this case at least six months.

Is This  IBS? The Answer: No.

Sometimes a person may have symptoms that they think are IBS. But, in fact, they’re not. An individual may have sudden diarrhea or constipation and abdominal pain, as well as other symptoms. Their symptoms go away after a few days and don’t come back. These symptoms may be due to changes in the diet, eating spoiled food, or something else, but not IBS. 

It may mean something more serious if a person has symptoms that are like IBS, along with: low iron in the blood (anemia), blood in the stool, weight loss, a fever, a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or symptoms that started after age 50. The person should contact their doctor for an appointment.

The Bottom Line

If you think you have IBS, we’ll help you figure out if your symptoms are IBS. Complete our assessment and we’ll provide you with answers and a personalized program to help lessen your symptoms. 

Or, if your doctor told you that you have IBS, you can also complete our assessment and we’ll provide a customized program to help lessen your symptoms.

If you want more information about IBS, Goodpath has it. Please go to our “Learn Center” for IBS information from our medical team.