Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease both affect the digestive system. However, Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, and IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder. While some symptoms overlap, there are also various differences.

Although there are some similarities between IBS and Crohn’s disease, there are significant differences in how healthcare professionals diagnose and treat symptoms.

They may confuse IBS for Crohn’s disease, but they are not the same conditions, and they require different treatments.

This article compares IBS and Crohn’s disease, including their symptoms, and explores the key differences. It also looks at diagnosis and when to contact a doctor.

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The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation classifies IBS as a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning that it affects the function and behavior of the intestines.

Meanwhile, healthcare professionals consider inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) a chronic disease. IBD is an inflammatory condition in which a person’s immune system attacks certain parts of the digestive system. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are the two types of IBD.

Crohn’s disease may affect any part of the GI tract, but it is most common at the end of the small intestine or the beginning of the large intestine. UC tends to affect the large intestine and the rectum.

While some symptoms of IBS and IBD may overlap, there are various key differences, such as causes, risk factors, and treatments.

IBS resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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Information from 2020 suggests IBS and Crohn’s disease symptoms may overlap in some instances. People with either condition may experience:

In both conditions, people typically experience phases where symptoms are active (flare) and when there are little to no symptoms (remission). A person should consult a healthcare professional to monitor and manage both conditions.

However, there are also differences in symptoms.

Symptoms of IBS

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation proposes that IBS may vary in intensity from person to person. Symptoms include:

  • chronic and persistent abdominal pain
  • constipation alternating with diarrhea
  • gas
  • abdominal bloating or swelling
  • the urge to move bowels without being able to have a bowel movement
  • nausea

Learn more about IBS symptoms.

Symptoms of Crohn’s

Crohn’s disease symptoms may also vary depending on the person and the area of the intestinal system affected. Common symptoms include:

  • frequent or urgent bowel movements
  • bloody stool
  • abdominal pain
  • cramping

People may also experience additional effects:

Learn more about Crohn’s disease symptoms.

IBD resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

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While Crohn’s disease and IBS affect the GI tract, some key differences exist, including complications, causes, symptoms, and treatment.

Complications of IBS

IBS may significantly impact a person’s quality of life, as it causes recurrent pain and symptoms. Chronic constipation and diarrhea increase a person’s risk of developing hemorrhoids.

Complications of Crohn’s

Possible complications of Crohn’s disease may include:

Inflammation and risks

Crohn’s disease and UC can cause chronic inflammation. However, IBS does not cause inflammation or damage to the GI tract as with IBD.

IBD inflammation carries an increased risk of a person developing colorectal cancer, while IBS does not.

The exact cause of both IBS and Crohn’s disease remains unknown.

Causes of IBS

Experts suggest IBS may also result from:

  • a disturbance between the brain and the gut
  • certain foods
  • hormonal factors
  • some medications

Learn more about IBS causes.

Causes of IBD/Crohn’s

However, experts suggest that several factors may play a role in the development of IBD, such as:

  • genetics
  • an abnormal reaction of the immune system
  • environment
  • gut microbiome imbalance

Whereas possible triggers for IBS may include sensitivity of the GI tract to gas and bloating.

Learn more about IBD, including its causes.

Each GI condition has different risk factors that may lead to someone developing them at some point in their life.

Risk factors for IBS

Similarly, IBS occurs in people who have a family history of the disorder. However, other risk factors include:

Learn more about IBS and genetics.

Risk factors for IBD/Crohn’s

Risk factors for Crohn’s disease include:

  • genetics
  • autoimmune reactions
  • smoking
  • using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin
  • using birth control pills
  • using antibiotics
  • a high fat diet

Learn more about Crohn’s disease and genetics.

Who is affected?

IBD and IBS may occur at any age, but people tend to receive a diagnosis at different times.

IBD can affect people at any age, but a person usually receives a diagnosis between ages 15–30 years. IBS is most common in individuals under ages 50 years.

Crohn’s and IBS require different treatments.

Treatment for IBS

IBS treatment aims to provide relief and target specific symptoms. Treatment may include medication, psychological therapy, and lifestyle changes, such as diet and stress reduction.

Medications for specific symptoms include:

Read more about treatments for IBS.

Treatment for Crohn’s

Treatments for Crohn’s disease aim to reduce inflammation and control symptoms. Examples of medications include:

Learn more about IV infusions of biologic medications for Crohn’s.

There are some overlaps and differences in the diagnostic methods used for both conditions.

Diagnosing IBS

IBS diagnosis typically involves a physical exam and assessment of medical history. Doctors often use symptom-based criteria to help diagnose this condition.

If a person is experiencing recurrent symptoms, including after treatment, doctors may order blood tests or stool samples. In more serious cases, they may perform endoscopic or imaging procedures.

Learn whether it’s possible to test for IBS at home.

Diagnosing Crohn’s

To confirm a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, doctors will perform blood tests and stool samples to help detect the presence of inflammation. For example, they will check red and white blood cells and fecal calprotectin levels.

Other procedures for Crohn’s disease may include an upper endoscopy or colonoscopy to examine specific sections of the digestive tract.

Healthcare professionals may also use imaging tests such as CT and MRI scans to help them diagnose IBD. A doctor may also take biopsies to aid in diagnosis.

Information from 2020 confirms that to make an accurate diagnosis of IBD, there has to be visible mucosal inflammation on the colonoscopy or imaging, as well as biomarkers, such as fetal calprotectin.

On the other hand, IBS has no accepted biomarker or structural explanation of the mucosa seen at colonoscopy for the symptoms.

Learn more about CT scans for Crohn’s disease.

Experts recommend people consult a healthcare professional if they have any of the following symptoms for more than 6 weeks:

  • abdominal pain
  • discomfort
  • bloating
  • a change in bowel habits

They will perform all the relevant testing to provide an accurate diagnosis of IBS or IBD.

Learn more about diagnosing IBD and IBS.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about IBS and Crohn’s disease.

How do I know if it is IBS or Crohn’s disease?

Healthcare professionals will be able to diagnose a person with either IBS or Crohn’s disease based on medical history and physical symptoms. They will then order tests, including blood and stool samples.

To accurately diagnose Crohn’s disease, they will use a flexible sigmoidoscopy, endoscopy, and colonoscopy to inspect certain areas of the intestines.

Can IBS turn into Crohn’s disease?

There is no evidence to suggest that IBS can turn into Crohn’s disease or any other gastrointestinal condition.

Although it is unlikely that IBS is a mild subset of IBD, some people with IBS do receive a subsequent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease or UC. However, this is likely due to initial misdiagnosis.

A person can receive an accurate diagnosis of either Crohn’s disease or IBS by a doctor through testing and procedures.

IBS and Crohn’s disease both affect the digestive system. However, Crohn’s disease is a type of IBD, and IBS is a GI disorder.

They do have some overlapping symptoms, such as diarrhea and bloating, but significant differences also occur. IBS presents with constipation and an urge to move bowels. IBD causes frequent need to empty bowels and blood in the stool.

Additional differences include their causes, risk factors, and treatments. People should discuss any questions with a doctor to understand how they differ.

People should consult a doctor if they have had gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea or changes in bowel movements, for more than 6 weeks.