Do I Have IBS or IBD? How to Tell

Table of Contents

Written By:

Key Takeaways

  • IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) are two distinct digestive disorders.
  • Symptoms of both conditions may include abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation, but IBD may have more severe symptoms like bleeding, weight loss, and fever.
  • Treatment differs between IBS and IBD, so getting a diagnosis from your doctor is essential to getting the care you need.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may sound similar and even share some of the same symptoms, but they are two very different digestive conditions.

While both can significantly affect your daily life, IBD can cause much more serious complications and require different treatments. IBD involves inflammation that can cause damage to your intestinal wall, while IBS is a functional disorder that does not cause permanent damage to the intestines.

Understanding the key differences can help you get the proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This article will share key features of both IBS and IBD, how to tell the difference between them, and what treatment looks like for each. 

Nourish offers personalized nutrition counseling and accepts the most popular insurance carriers. A dietitian can help you navigate food and digestive health, creating nutrition plans for your unique needs—consider booking a virtual appointment today.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional GI disorder, which means the function of the digestive tract is not working as it should. It affects around 10% of the population and is more common in women than men. 

The causes of IBS aren't entirely understood but may include a history of food poisoning, stress, and motility dysfunction (how food moves through the intestines). People with IBS often have visceral hypersensitivity, which means the nerves in the GI tract are more reactive and easily 'triggered' by food, stress, inflammation, or other environmental factors. 

The gut-brain connection is also considered an essential factor in IBS, where the close relationship between the brain and the digestive system can cause emotional and physical symptoms. 

There are four types of IBS, all related to bowel movements: 

  1. IBS with constipation (IBS-C)
  2. IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  3. Mixed IBS (IBS-M)
  4. Unspecified IBS, which means stool consistency doesn't fall into an expected pattern (IBS-U)

Even though IBS doesn't cause structural damage to the digestive tract, it can still significantly impact your quality of life. Frequent trips to the bathroom, painful bloating or cramping, and an inability to enjoy their favorite foods can leave people feeling frustrated and anxious.

What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of digestive disorders that cause inflammation of the intestines affecting over 3 million Americans.

IBD can be broken down into two categories: Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Both disorders are characterized by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, but each has different symptoms and treatments depending on the severity of the disease. 

Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation in the lining of your large intestine and rectum. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and fatigue. 

Crohn's disease is a type of IBD that affects any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. Symptoms include abdominal pain, weight loss, diarrhea, and fatigue. 

The causes of IBD are once again complex. Researchers believe genetic, immune, and environmental factors are to blame. If left untreated, the inflammation can spread and cause serious health complications, including damage to the intestines, but the good news is that it can be effectively managed with proper treatment.

How Is IBS Different Than IBD?

The primary difference between IBS and IBD is that IBS is functional, while IBD is structural. While IBD is a chronic inflammatory disease, IBS is a digestive disorder that causes symptoms without tissue damage. 

IBD also involves an autoimmune response, which means your body's immune system is attacking its own cells. IBS may involve the immune system that causes intestinal inflammation, but it's not the same as the autoimmune response seen in IBD.

Symptoms of IBS and IBD

At first glance, the symptoms of IBS and IBD look very similar. Irregular bowel habits and food sensitivities can both occur with IBS and IBD

Other symptoms of IBS and IBD that overlap can include:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Constipation. 
  • Diarrhea.
  • Bloating.
  • Nausea.

However, IBD can also cause more serious symptoms, including:

  • Weight loss.
  • Bleeding.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Eye inflammation.
  • Painful joints.
  • Fever.
  • Anemia.
  • Nutrient deficiencies.

Diagnosing IBS and IBD

Anytime you have changes in your bowel habits or abdominal pain, it's important to see a medical professional, such as your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist. 

The diadnosis of both conditions start with a physical examination and a review of your medical history. Your doctor may also perform laboratory tests to assess your general health and check for anemia, infection, and inflammation. 

Since IBS doesn't appear on tests like X-rays or endoscopy, it's often diagnosed after ruling out other causes of symptoms. The Rome IV criteria is used to diagnose IBS, and it states that someone must experience recurrent abdominal pain at least once a week in the last three months associated with at least 2 of the following for diagnosis:

  • Pain related to bowel movements.
  • Change in frequency of stool.
  • Change in appearance of stool.

Inflammatory bowel disease, on the other hand, causes damage to the intestines, so x-rays, biopsies, colonoscopies, stool tests, MRIs, or CT scans may be used to visualize the intestines for diagnosis.

Treating IBS and IBD

Any digestive-related health condition takes a multi-faceted approach and should be individualized to the person. A combination of medical and lifestyle interventions are usually recommended, including:

  • Medications: IBS medications may include those that address symptoms like diarrhea or constipation. Not everyone with IBS takes medications, but they may help those with severe symptoms until lifestyle changes can occur. IBD medications are different and usually address inflammation and suppress the immune system to limit damage and reduce symptoms.
  • Nutrition: Nutrition supports symptoms and overall health in both IBS and IBD. Many people with IBS experience food sensitivities that can actually improve over time. Elimination diets can reduce inflammation and help identify trigger foods. Certain foods and supplements can also support the health of the gut bacteria and reduce IBS symptoms. Similarly, for IBD, nutrition helps calm inflammation and remove problematic foods that trigger symptoms or irritate. Working with a dietitian can also help ensure nutrient needs are met with food and supplements since IBD can result in deficiencies. Consider booking a virtual appointment with a registered dietitian.
  • Stress reduction and mental health support. Stress is a significant factor in IBS and IBD. Managing stress levels is vital for symptom relief. This could involve deep breathing, yoga, massage therapy, counseling, or whatever works best for you.


IBS and IBD are different conditions, yet they can be easily confused. The primary difference is that IBS is a functional syndrome, while IBD is an inflammatory disease. 

A visit with your healthcare provider can help you determine the right diagnosis and ensure you get the best treatment.

How a Dietitian Can Help

If you're struggling to manage gut health and have been unable to find relief, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD) can help. An RD is a licensed health professional with the knowledge and expertise to work with you and your healthcare team to create an individualized nutrition plan that meets your needs. 

An IBS dietitian can help you identify potential triggers, develop strategies for managing symptoms, and ensure you get the nutrients you need. This may include providing guidance on supplements and beneficial nutrition therapies, such as probiotics or prebiotics. Connect with an RD today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can IBD be confused with IBS?

Since IBD and IBS share similar symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea, it's easy to confuse them. A healthcare provider can determine the correct diagnosis and ensure you get the proper treatment. 

Is IBS worse than IBD?

The symptoms of IBS and IBD can be mild to severe, and the severity of symptoms depends on the individual. Both can significantly impact quality of life, but the potential for complications is more significant with IBD.

How can you tell the difference between IBS and colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The main difference between IBS and colitis is that IBS is a functional bowel disorder, while colitis is an inflammatory disorder. Colitis causes inflammation and ulceration in the lining of the large intestine, while IBS does not.


View all references

See a Registered Dietitian with Nourish

  • Covered by insurance
  • Virtual sessions
  • Personalized care
Schedule an appointment

Frequently asked questions

No items found.

See a dietitian covered by insurance

Nourish offers virtual nutrition counseling covered by insurance. Learn how to manage health conditions, eating behaviors, and more with a registered dietitian.

Text Link
Text Link
Text Link
Text Link
Text Link
Hormonal Health
Text Link
Weight Stabilization
Text Link
Bariatric Surgery
Text Link
Weight Gain
Text Link
Weight Loss
Text Link
High Cholesterol
Text Link
High Blood Pressure
Text Link
Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED)
Text Link
Type 2 Diabetes
Text Link
Type 1 Diabetes
Text Link
Gestational Diabetes
Text Link
Text Link
Multiple Sclerosis
Text Link
Celiac Disease
Text Link
Ulcerative Colitis
Text Link
GERD / Acid Reflux
Text Link
Crohn’s Disease
Text Link
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
Text Link
Binge Eating
Text Link
Text Link
Text Link
Food Allergies
Text Link
Sports and Performance Nutrition
Text Link
Eating Disorder
Text Link
Autoimmune Disease
Text Link
Thyroid Disorders
Text Link
Text Link
Text Link
Healthy Aging
Text Link
Women's Health
Text Link
Weight Concerns
Text Link
Text Link
Pre or Postnatal Nutrition
Text Link
Pediatric Nutrition
Text Link
Liver Disease
Text Link
Kidney Disease
Text Link
Heart Health
Text Link
Gut Health
Text Link
General Health
Text Link
Emotional Eating
Text Link

Find a

dietitian covered by insurance

No items found.