Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects up to 45 million Americans. But doctors don't know a lot about what causes this gut disorder. Finding a treatment that works can take time, and other health problems can crop up in the meantime.
None of the complications are life-threatening, though. IBS doesn't lead to cancer or other more serious bowel-related conditions. Here are some of the health issues it can cause:
Dehydration: If you have severe diarrhea often, your body can lose too much water and salt. That can make you dehydrated. You can keep this from happening by drinking plenty of water. Your doctor may recommend fruit juice and sports drinks as well.
Impacted bowel: If you're constipated for a long time, stool can get blocked in your colon. Sometimes it can get so hard that you can't push it out. This is known as a fecal impaction. It can hurt and cause things like headache, nausea, and vomiting. It happens most often with older adults. See your doctor right away if you have signs this may be happening.
Food intolerance: Certain foods can make your IBS symptoms worse. What they are can be different for everyone. But some people feel better when they cut out wheat, dairy, coffee, eggs, yeast, potatoes, and citrus fruits. And fats and sugars can make diarrhea worse. Your doctor may suggest you try a FODMAP diet to cut out some carbohydrates that are hard to digest.
Malnourishment: Cutting back on some types of foods can ease your IBS symptoms. But your body may not get all the nutrients it needs. A dietitian can help you find a diet that works for you.
Hemorrhoids: Swollen blood vessels around your anus, the opening where stool comes out, can hurt and bleed. Very hard or very loose stools can make the situation worse. If the swollen vessels are inside your anus, they may fall far enough to stick out.
You can often treat hemorrhoids at home with an over-the-counter cream. You also might try sitting on a cold ice pack. And be sure to keep the area clean.
Bladder problems: Some people with IBS wake up during the night because they need to pee. You also can have an urgent need to go during the day. In addition, you may feel like you're not able to empty your bladder completely. But don't cut back on fluids. That can make bladder problems worse.
Pregnancy complications: Hormone changes and the physical pressure a baby puts on the bowel wall can cause digestive issues. Many women also choose to stop any IBS drugs they're taking. This can be better for the baby. But it can make moms-to-be more likely to have things like heartburn and indigestion.
Quality of life: Flare-ups can happen without warning. Also, you may have diarrhea for a time and then be constipated. Not being able to predict how you'll feel can make it hard to go about your daily life.
You also probably need to see your doctor often and are likely to miss more work than other people. It may be harder to focus when you're at your job. Managing stress, for example through exercise or meditation, can help.
Depression and anxiety: It's common for people who have IBS to feel like they're losing control over their lives. If your symptoms are bad, you may find yourself always trying to map out the nearest bathroom.
Because there's a link between your brain and gut, this kind of stress can make your IBS worse. The pain and the awkward symptoms you're dealing with can affect your mood. It may help to talk to a counselor about what's going on with you.