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Pharmacy Care provides information about self-care, that is how to treat minor medical conditions with products available at the pharmacy. Find out how your pharmacist can help you to manage minor conditions yourself.
Irritable bowel syndrome self-care
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common problem. It involves abdominal pain with changes in bowel habits. Around 20% of people are likely to suffer from IBS at some point during their lives.
IBS is more common in women than in men and occurs more often in younger people. IBS is usually ongoing, and there are some times when symptoms are worse than other times. Having IBS does not mean you are more likely to develop colon cancer later in life.
A diagnosis of IBS may be made by your doctor after other causes of your symptoms have been ruled out.
Symptoms of IBS
Some people with IBS mainly have constipation, others have diarrhoea. Many people with IBS alternate between periods of constipation and diarrhoea. Symptoms include:
- cramps and bloating in your lower abdomen, which usually get better after having a bowel motion or passing wind
- pain that can be a sharp or dull feeling
- constipation: feeling that you have not managed to empty your bowels completely, having bowel motions less often, straining to pass a motion or passing small, hard stools
- diarrhoea: having bowel motions too often and passing loose stools
- flatulence, or wind, and/or rumbling noises from your abdomen
- needing to rush to the toilet
- mucus in your stools
The cause of IBS is not known, but certain things can trigger its symptoms, including:
- depressed mood
- food poisoning
- certain food and drinks
- some medication
- some people find avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can reduce their IBS symptoms
- some women suffer from symptoms of IBS just before, or during, their period
- lactose intolerance may be a cause and needs to be diagnosed by a doctor before permanent changes to diet are made
See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional
- if you have an ongoing change in bowel habit, especially if you are aged over 40
- if you have blood in your stools
- if you have unexplained weight loss
- if you also have a fever or vomiting that recurs often
- if you have severe constipation, diarrhoea or abdominal pain
- if you are being woken at night by your symptoms
- if you have recently travelled overseas, particularly to developing countries
- if there has been a change in your usual symptoms
- if there is family history of colon cancer
- if a child is presenting with symptoms of IBS
- keep a diary of events surrounding each IBS attack to help identify triggers
reduce stress; relaxation techniques or counselling can be helpful
exercise regularly; being active helps digestion
eat a well balanced diet, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and drink lots of water
high-fibre foods, such as cereals and bran, help some people, but can make bloating symptoms worse in others
increase fibre gradually; avoid excessive amounts.
avoid smoking and speak to your healthcare professional about options to help you quit if you are a smoker
- if diet and lifestyle changes do not help on their own, medicines can be used to manage symptoms of IBS
Diarrhoea in IBS
e.g. loperamide (Gastro-Stop, Harmonise, Imodium Advanced Chewable Tablets, Imodium Capsules, Caplets and Melts)
anti-diarrhoeal medications work by slowing down bowel movements, which allows time for more water to be absorbed back out of the stools, making them less loose
they also help reduce cramping, abdominal pain and the frequency of bowel motions.
they are not to be used in children
e.g. atropine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
atropine and diphenoxylate may cause drowsiness
Treatments that may help either diarrhoea or constipation in IBS
e.g. psyllium (Metamucil range, Mucilax), psyllium + maize starch (Nucolox), sterculia (Normacol Plus, Normafibe), ispaghula husk (Fybogel)
Food (fibre) supplements
e.g. gluten-free wheat dextrin (Benefiber)
bulk-forming laxatives or fibre supplements may be used by some people with IBS to normalise stool consistency when stools are particularly loose
if bulk-forming laxatives are taken without the usual amount of water, they bulk up the stool making it easier to pass
alternatively, bulk-forming laxatives may also be used for constipation in IBS; when this is the case, then they need to be taken with plenty of water
Benefiber is a fine powder with minimum taste; it can be sprinkled on foods and in cooking without pre-mixing to increase fibre content of the diet
Constipation in IBS
Osmotic laxatives, iso-osmotic laxatives and stool-softeners
e.g. osmotic laxatives: osmotic salts (Microlax enema, Fleet Ready-to-Use Enema, Epsom salts), sorbitol (Sorbilax), lactulose (Duphalac, Genlac), glycerol (Glycerol Suppositories BP)
e.g. iso-osmotic laxatives: macrogol 3350 with electrolytes (Movicol, Movicol-Half),
e.g. stool softeners: poloxamer (Coloxyl Drops), liquid paraffin (Agarol, Parachoc)
e.g. osmotic laxative: sodium picosulphate (Picolax)
osmotic laxatives, such as lactulose, work by pulling more water into your stools, making them less hard
they do not have an immediate effect and may need to be used for a few days before they begin to work
lactulose can be mixed with water, fruit juice, lemonade or milk to make it more palatable. It contains some lactose so people with lactose intolerance or diabetes should check with their pharmacist before taking
iso-osmotic laxatives, such as macrogol 3350, deliver extra water to your bowel and help soften stools; they usually take one or two days to work
stool softeners, such as docusate, help water to get into stools, making them softer
a Microlax enema can be used if your constipation is severe, and should work within 30 minutes.
glycerol suppositories act within 15 to 30 minutes
if long-term use is required, check with your pharmacist, as some osmotic laxatives can lead to an imbalance in your body salts
e.g. senna (Senokot), bisacodyl (Dulcolax tablets, Dulcolax suppositories, Bisalax tablets and enemas), sodium picosulphate (Dulcolax SP Drops)
stimulant laxatives directly stimulate your bowel to cause movement
these should be taken at night to have an effect the next day
they should be used for a short period of time only unless advised by your doctor
they can sometimes cause abdominal cramps
tablets work in about eight hours; suppositories work more quickly
they are not recommended in young children or during pregnancy
e.g. frangula and sterculia (Normacol Plus)
this product contains a bulk-forming laxative and a stimulant laxative
e.g. docusate and senna (Coloxyl with Senna)
this product contains a stool-softener and a stimulant laxative
Abdominal pain in IBS
Products to relieve cramping, bloating and flatulence
e.g. peppermint oil (Mintec)
e.g. hyoscine butylbromide (Buscopan, Setacol)
peppermint oil can help with cramping, bloating and flatulence
it is important to swallow peppermint oil capsules whole to avoid mouth and throat irritation
hyoscine may help with cramping
other medications, such as mebeverine (Colofac), are Prescription Only medicines, only available on prescription from your doctor
probiotics, e.g. Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium spp.
may help to regulate the digestive system, encouraging more uniform stools
Availability of medicines
- GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
- PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
- PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.
- PRESCRIPTION ONLY available only with a prescription from your doctor or other health professional.
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Last Reviewed: 11 January 2010