What Is the Difference Between IBS and Colitis?

A male doctor is explaining the difference between IBS and colitis to a female patient

The gut is among the most sensitive organs in your body, and it’s vulnerable to various GI tract disorders. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are two common conditions that affect the gut. Both are chronic illnesses typified by abdominal pains, urgent bowel movements, and cramping. For this reason, it isn’t surprising that the two conditions get confused with each other.

Despite both conditions affecting the large intestines and having similar symptoms and acronyms, they are different. So, here’s everything you need to know about the difference between IBS and colitis, their similarities, treatment options, and when to see a doctor if you suspect you have either.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is an autoimmune disorder that affects the gastrointestinal GI tract. The condition typically causes chronic abdominal pain with diarrhea and constipation. The pain often dissipates when the patient’s bowels get emptied, but resumes after they eat and digestion starts. Although IBS can affect anyone, its symptoms tend to be more severe in younger patients since their digestive tracts are weaker.

It’s hard to tell the exact cause of IBS, but research suggests a brain-gut link. Patients’ symptoms often worsen as they get more stressed. For years, patients with IBS symptoms got dismissed or told they were stressed and needed psychological interventions rather than medical treatments. However, IBS is a medical condition, and medical interventions are available.

Other potential causes of IBS include:

  • An imbalance of bad and good bacteria in a patient’s GI tract.
  • Leaky gut syndrome (a rare permeability of intestinal walls).
  • The body’s natural immune response to sensitive foods.

What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Also called ulcerative colitis, IBD is a digestive health condition that causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. As the name suggests, those with IBD only have an inflamed colon, resulting in abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and severe diarrhea. Some patients also experience bowel movement urgency, poor appetite and weight loss, nausea, and anal pain. IBD symptoms are chronic, and although controllable, relapse is common.

Like IBS, the exact cause of colitis is unknown. Even so, research indicates that the condition results from an immune response to environmental triggers like bacteria and viruses, leading to an inflammation of the GI tract. Lifestyle choices like smoking and genetics can also play a role in the development of colitis. If left untreated, the condition can cause permanent damage to the GI tract and a heightened risk of colorectal cancer.

Similarities Between IBS and Colitis

The primary similarity between IBS and colitis is that both affect the gastrointestinal tract. Other similarities include:

  • Both conditions can become chronic.
  • The symptoms tend to progress and become more severe.
  • Reduced quality of life when the symptoms worsen.
  • The abdomen may feel bloated over time.
  • The patients may start to develop psychological disorders.

The Difference Between IBS and Colitis

The difference between IBS and colitis include the following:

  • IBS primarily affects the gut, whereas colitis can affect the whole body.
  • Medics have not identified the causes of colitis, but some foods are suspect. On the other hand, IBS triggers include certain foods and stress.
  • Colitis causes physical damage to the colon, whereas IBS doesn’t.
  • In rare cases, a patient with colitis may also experience IBS symptoms.
  • An IBS patient can develop digestive conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, while colitis patients often develop malabsorption and anemia.

How Do You Treat IBS?

Nearly a third of IBS cases get treated using a one-and-done antibiotic treatment. In severe cases, whereby symptoms keep relapsing, patients can only get better when the disease gets re-treated over time. Besides antibiotics, diet changes can help treat IBS. A patient may also need appropriate medication to ease diarrhea and constipation.

The fact that IBS treatments are available is a far cry from the past when many patients suffered without treatment. Perhaps, this is because of the misconception that the condition is psychological. With medical advances, it’s possible to diagnose IBS with a blood test.

How Do You Treat Colitis?

Unlike the case with IBS, diagnosing IBD is more complex and could take weeks or months. The patient’s medical and family history needs to be collected and reviewed before a physical exam, lab tests, and various endoscopic procedures happen. Since colitis is a form of IBD, blood tests happen so that doctors distinguish it from other forms of IBD to optimize treatments.

Sometimes, CT and MRI scans can help make an appropriate diagnosis and establish the extent of damage to the intestines. Likewise, since colitis is a chronic disease, a critical component of treatment entails careful management so that patients can control their symptoms better. Antibiotics, lifestyle changes, antidiarrheal drugs, and surgery can also treat colitis, depending on the severity of the condition.

When Should You See a Doctor?

Patients with persistent gastrointestinal symptoms should visit their primary care physician or a gastroenterologist for an accurate diagnosis. Like any disease, treatment is straightforward if either condition gets diagnosed early. For this reason, you should see a doctor as soon as you start to experience the tell-tale symptoms of these GI tract conditions.

A critical step in the diagnostic process is taking a patient’s family and medical history, besides reviewing their signs and symptoms. For instance, a patient with considerable rectal bleeding, unintended weight loss, or anemia may have IBD. Further testing of blood and stool samples can also be done. This can include investigations such as colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, biopsy, and bacterium contract studies.

Get Treated for IBS and IBD Today

Millions of people unknowingly suffer from IBD and IBS. Unfortunately, many end up getting misdiagnosed because the two conditions have similar symptoms and may also be similar to other GI tract illnesses. Relief is available if you think you have IBD or IBS. The gastroenterologists at Allied Digestive Health can help diagnose the condition early and prescribe the best course of treatment. We can also help you discover the difference between IBS and colitis.

We know too well how GI tract conditions can impact your health and overall quality of life. Thus, we leverage our expertise to diagnose and manage a broad spectrum of GI disorders, including IBS and IBD. Contact us today to request an appointment at any of our care centers.

Gyan Gastroenterology (Sudha Nahar, MD)
(732) 873-1600
Associated Gastroenterology of Central New Jersey (Lawrence Pickover, MD)
(732) 846-2777
Steven H. Krawet, MD
(732) 390-5534
Nashed Botros, MD
(732) 967- 9595
Satya Kastuar, MD
(732) 821-0011
Yuri Volk, MD
(732) 677-2200
Cape Atlantic Gastroenterology Associates (Richard Troum, DO, FACG)