What is the Difference Between IBS and IBD?

Jan 21, 2017 by


You can have me read this article to you instead of reading it yourself…

Or you can read it the old-fashioned way below…

How are IBS and IBD different?

This is a common question that comes up for people that are new to the world of GI disorders, and it’s a fair question, because the two sound awfully similar!  It’s also really important for anyone who has one of these conditions to fully understand the difference, because a misdiagnosis could be very bad in either direction.  If you have been told that you have one of these but it sounds a lot more like the other, that is definitely worth a discussion with your doctor, and possibly some further testing as well.

Type of Condition

The differences between these two conditions show up right out of the gate.  In fact, we will use their names to clarify the most fundamental difference between them.

IBS: Irritable Bowel Syndrome

This is a functional condition, meaning that the GI tract doesn’t function properly.  As the name would imply, the gut is irritated in some way by something in its environment.  This change in function and irritation does not, however, have anything to do with actual damage to the GI tract itself.

The name also gives away another key difference – this is a syndrome.  This means that the condition is identified by a specific set of symptoms that appear when it is present.  The diagnosis for IBS is based on an evaluation of symptoms, and cannot be done through any classic diagnostic tests.

IBD: Inflammatory Bowel Disease

This is an inflammatory condition, meaning that the GI tract is being attacked by its own immune system, causing direct damage to the GI tract and its tissue.  Because the tissue is being damaged, this leads to changes in the function of the GI tract, but in a much more severe manner that can cause incredibly difficult symptoms and, in some cases, be life-threatening.

The name also gives away another key difference – this is a disease.  This means that it can be identified by specific markers and diagnosed with specific tests.  It can also cause long-term complications.  The diagnosis for IBD is conducted by examining the state of the GI tract, looking for specific molecules in the blood, and examining the stool.  The symptoms simply act as the alarm that this disease is present, but they are not the method for diagnosing the condition.


For more detail on this topic, you can hop over to the dedicated articles for both IBS and IBD, but I will quickly lay out the most significant differences in symptoms here.

IBS can lead to symptoms that can range from mild to severe.  In their worst form, these symptoms can cause discomfort that lasts throughout the day and makes it difficult to go about daily activities.  It may result in many visits to the bathroom, as well as a developing social anxiety due to the need to have a rapid exit at all times (and possibly a bathroom close by).  While these symptoms are nothing to be ignored, they will not cause any long-term health issues for the body.

IBD typically does not involve mild symptoms, and the symptoms will always be moderate to severe.  In the worst form, these symptoms can be deadly if the intestine experiences enough damage and causes infections and/or damage to other parts of the body.  Emergency surgery may sometimes be required, and surgery in general may be necessary to prevent long-term complications including severe weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and cancer.


The goals of treatment for these conditions are very different, and make sense when you compare the difference in the symptoms that are experienced.  With IBS, the goal of treatment is to relieve the symptoms (often diarrhea or constipation) that are being experienced.  With IBD, on the other hand, the goal of treatment is to stop the inflammation that is destroying the intestine.  If the inflammation is stopped, this will help to relieve symptoms, but the primary goal with this treatment is to halt the damage before it becomes dangerous to the rest of the body.

As you can see, these conditions really are quite different, even if their names are so often confused in conversation.  And it is crucial to your best health to recognize the differences and how this might affect you.

Interested in more information on IBS?

Next: IBS Resources

Or refer back to the IBS Info Hub.


Trivia and Terminology:

IBD is short for inflammatory bowel disease and has also been called “a GI tract on fire”

IBS is short for irritable bowel syndrome and has also been given names like “spastic colon”


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