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What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Your intestines (also called bowels) can have something called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It causes cramps, bloating (puffiness in your belly area), constipation (when you can't poop), and diarrhea (when you poop too much).

If you have irritable bowel syndrome, there are ways to deal with or prevent these symptoms.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of IBS?

Besides belly pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, kids with IBS also could have:

Kids with IBS may sometimes feel like they can't quite finish going to the bathroom. Or, if they have gas, instead of passing it, it may feel trapped inside.

What Happens in Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a problem with the way the large intestine (say: in-TES-tin), or colon, works. The large intestine absorbs water and nutrients from the partially digested food that enters it from the small intestine. Anything not absorbed slowly moves on a pathway out of your body. These undigested and unabsorbed food particles are also known as stool, a bowel movement, or poop.

Here's why an intestine gets "irritable." To have a bowel movement, the muscles in the colon and the rest of the body have to work together. If they don't, what's in the colon can't move along as well as it should. It sort of stops and starts, doesn't move, or sometimes moves too fast. This can hurt and make a kid feel bad. Doctors also believe that people with IBS may have more sensitive bowels. So what might be a little uncomfortable in one person causes serious pain for someone with IBS.

IBS isn't fun, but the good news is that it doesn't lead to more serious problems. It's irritating, but it can be managed and kids can do whatever activities they like in spite of it.

Why Do Kids Get IBS?

No one really knows what causes IBS, but it tends to run in families.

Stress can affect kids with IBS too. Stress can speed up your colon and slow your stomach down. Stressful feelings also can be a trigger for IBS. Let's say a kid has a big test at school the next day and really worries about it, that's stress. Or if a kid's parents argue a lot — that's stress too. A kid in this situation can learn to handle stress in other ways, so IBS symptoms will go away or at least be less severe.

What kids eat can also be a trigger. This can be different for each kid. For example:

  • A high-fat diet may bother some kids.
  • Sugary drinks may cause diarrhea in other kids.
  • For other kids, eating big meals and spicy foods might cause problems.

What Will the Doctor Do?

Most kids get a stomachache, constipation, or diarrhea now and then. This doesn't mean a kid has IBS.

But when a kid has these problems regularly, a doctor may think it could be IBS. Here are some questions the doctor might ask:

  1. How often does the kid's stomach hurt? Every week? Every 2 weeks? Every day? A kid with IBS will have a stomachache at least 12 weeks out of a year. That's a lot!
  2. What makes that pain go away? If the pain stops after the kid poops, there's a good chance it's IBS.
  3. How often does the kid have to poop? With IBS, it could be more often or less often than usual.
  4. Now the gross one: What does the poop look like? Sometimes kids notice that their poop looks different than usual. It may be a different color, slimier, or contain something that looks like mucus (snot). That's a real signal to the doctor that a kid might have IBS.

There is no test to diagnose IBS. Doctors often diagnose the problem just by listening to a person describe the symptoms. That's why it's really important for kids to talk with their parents and their doctor about their symptoms, even if it seems embarrassing.

How Is IBS Treated?

If IBS causes a lot of problems, the doctor might give a kid medicine to ease pain and manage gas, constipation, diarrhea, and the need to rush to the bathroom.

But kids also need to learn what makes the symptoms worse and avoid whatever it is. So try to figure out what seems to cause your IBS symptoms.

Keeping a diary is one way to do that. No, it's not the kind of diary you write poems in. Think of it as a way to record what you eat and whether you had any IBS symptoms after that. You also might write down when you feel really anxious, like before a big test, to see if that makes the problem worse.

Each person's food triggers may be a little different. But some common ones are:

  • big meals
  • spicy foods
  • high-fat foods
  • chocolate
  • some dairy products like ice cream or cheese

It's not just what you do eat — what you don't eat also may lead to IBS symptoms. Fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods like beans and popcorn can help keep your colon moving well. Drinking water can help a cranky colon too.

Learning how to handle stress can help kids, whether they have IBS or not. One way to do that is to talk about your problems with other people, such as parents and friends. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I putting too much pressure on myself at school?
  • Am I getting enough sleep?
  • Do I get time to play and be active, such as riding a bike or playing basketball?
  • Do I skip breakfast and then get so hungry that I nearly inhale my lunch? Eating more slowly could help IBS symptoms.

It would be good to talk with a parent, or another trusted adult, about the answers to these questions. Just talking to someone can make you — and your irritable bowels — feel better!

Medically reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: May 2023