When an IBS Diagnosis Doesn't Help With Diarrhea


Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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young woman sitting on couching with stomach pain

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder that usually causes pain, bloating, and changes in stool, like diarrhea. You may have been diagnosed with IBS recently, but you’re worried because your diarrhea isn’t getting better… even through you’re following your doctor’s treatment plan.

It’s important to learn why you might still be having diarrhea, but don’t forget to talk with your doctor about your symptoms and what you can do to help.

Is It IBS … or Something Else?

In the United States, up to 45 million people have been diagnosed with IBS. But it’s not a black and white issue–currently, there isn’t any standardized set of symptoms or treatment options for IBS. Part of the problem is that the common symptoms of IBS, like abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea, can all be caused by other health issues or diseases.

Your doctor certainly has your best interests in mind, and he or she wants to make the most accurate diagnosis possible, but your diarrhea could be caused by something other than IBS. The only way to be sure is to talk with your doctor about the diarrhea you’re still experiencing after beginning your treatment plan. Your doctor will probably ask you questions about your diarrhea, like how long you’ve had it, if it’s gotten any better or any worse, and how often during the day you have to go.

Your doctor might also recommend specific tests to pinpoint the cause of your diarrhea. He or she might advise getting blood work to check for infections or other problems. You might also be asked for a sample of your stool to check for parasites or other foreign invaders, especially if you’ve traveled recently. In many cases, these types of tests can help identify a specific cause of your diarrhea. If your case is more serious, your doctor might recommend certain procedures, like a colonoscopy, to visually inspect your bowel for any issues. Severe causes of diarrhea can include irritable bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or carcinoid syndrome, which results from slow-growing tumors in the gastrointestinal tract. These conditions can be managed with treatment, but the sooner you’re diagnosed, the better.

Dealing With Diarrhea

When you discuss your concerns with your doctor, ask about any at-home treatments that might help your diarrhea. It might be possible to control your diarrhea by changing certain factors in your diet and lifestyle. Some types of foods can cause your diarrhea to get worse, so it’s best to avoid them unless your doctor says otherwise. Try to stay away from foods that are especially high in fiber, like dried beans, corn, and cabbage. Fatty meats, like processed lunch meat or bacon, and foods that are fried or highly processed, like chips or pastries, can also make your diarrhea worse.

You should try to avoid some types of liquids, like fruit juices that contain large amounts of sugar and alcoholic beverages. Caffeine can also cause your diarrhea to get worse, so it’s best to avoid caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or tea, as much as possible.

However, it’s important to stay hydrated when you have frequent diarrhea, since you could lose significant amounts of fluid and certain substances, called electrolytes, that your body needs to function properly. Some types of sports drinks, broth, bananas, and potatoes can all help replace vital fluids and electrolytes that are necessary for your body to function. Lower fiber foods, like rice, noodles, lean meats, and small amounts of certain vegetables, can help to rest your bowel and might lower the frequency with which you have diarrhea.

Diagnosing the cause of chronic diarrhea can be tricky, but together, you and your doctor can work to find the answer. The best thing you can do is talk with your doctor about your concerns. By tracking your symptoms and communicating honestly, you can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that will address your unique situation.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 14, 2017

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Medical References

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  3. Facts about IBS: Statistics. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. http://www.aboutibs.org/facts-about-ibs/statistics.html
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  6. Nutritional strategies for managing diarrhea. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. https://www.iffgd.org/lower-gi-disorders/diarrhea/nutrition-strategies.html?showall=&start=1