It affects around a third of the population, but irritable bowel syndrome is one condition that people shy away from talking about.

And while experts don’t know the exact cause of the condition, many studies have shown common triggers that set off symptoms.

So what are they? 

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS as it is commonly known, affects around a third of the population at some point in their lives, with twice as many women suffering than men. Symptoms can include abdominal pain and discomfort, diarrhoea and constipation, and bloating of the abdomen.

IBS is a condition affecting the bowel and is defined by the presence of a group of symptoms which are present over a period of time. While experts don’t know the exact cause of IBS, it is thought that common triggers such as diet and stress can set off the symptoms.

3 ways to spot IBS

Dr Adam Farmer, consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospitals of North Midlands, says the easiest way to remember the symptoms is with ABC;  Abdominal pain, bloating and change in bowel habit.

Abdominal pain, often mistaken for period pains

"Although the symptoms of IBS can wax and wane, period pain are generally confined to specific points during the menstrual cycle and are reproducible. There are several natural causes of flatulence. Flatulence can also be caused by some health conditions related to the digestive system, or as a side effect of certain medicines."

Bloating

"Bloating is a common symptom in IBS. However, bloating can occur in the absence of IBS, in that if it were solely bloating then it would not be associated with abdominal pain or a change in bowel habit."

Change in bowel habit

"IBS can be usefully subclassified according to predominant bowel habit. Approximately 25% of patient will have constipation predominant IBS, 25%, diarrhoea predominant and 50% will alternate between the two. Moreover, patient may flip from one of these categories to another over time."

In addition, decreased sexual drive is a common symptom in both male and female IBS patients. Such patients also report painful sex (dyspareunia). Sexual dysfunction is positively associated with perceived gastrointestinal symptom severity, but not with psychological symptom severity.”

If you are experiencing any red flag symptoms, even if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS in the past, seek professional advice immediately. Red flag symptoms include:

- Vomiting blood or blood in bowel movements
- Fever
- Unexplained weight loss
- Severe abdominal pain or a rigid abdomen, tender to the touch
- Abdominal discomfort lasting long that a week
- Prolonged poor appetite
- If you are pregnant and experiencing abdominal pain of any kind

How to prevent IBS flare ups

- Keep a diary: Keeping a food and symptom diary can be a really useful way of identifying what triggers your IBS, so they can be excluded from or reduced in the diet.

- Try not to skip meals: Leaving long gaps between eating meals or eating late at night can both aggravate IBS.

- Drink lots: Keep yourself hydrated by drinking at least eight glasses of fluid a day - water, sugar-free squash or herbal teas are all good options.

- Be prepared: Checking menus before eating out and sounding out toilet locations before visiting a new place will put your mind at rest and reduce the chances of your IBS flaring up.

- Talk about it! IBS affects around 15-20% of people so it can be helpful to talk to others about it to find out their top tips on coping.

- Exercise daily: Even gentle exercise such as yoga or walking the dog can be a great way to help manage IBS symptoms, so try and fit something into your daily routine.

- Keep calm: 56% of IBS sufferers say that stress can be a trigger for their symptoms. Reducing your stress levels can therefore have a positive effect on your IBS, so make sure you find some time for yourself and try out different relaxation methods such as aromatherapy, massage, relaxation tapes or just sitting down with a good book.

- Keep a treatment handy: Antispasmodic treatments can be taken at the first sign of every flare up, whether mild or severe, so make sure you keep one handy. Buscopan IBS Relief targets the root cause of the pain and is gentle on the stomach.

To mark IBS Awareness Month in April, ASDA Pharmacies, backed by The IBS Network, the national charity supporting people living with IBS, will be hosting a digestive health campaign nationwide to provide easy-to-understand advice and tips that people can conveniently take away with them whilst they’re in-store for their weekly shop. It’s key to open up the conversation about IBS - how to spot the symptoms and what steps you can take to alleviate it, so we can all better understand how to make life easier for those who need the support. ASDA Pharmacy’s digestive health event will run in-store from until 24 April.