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Red Flag Digestive Symptoms

When To Call Your Doctor

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Updated August 18, 2014

Remember the old joke: just because you are paranoid doesn't mean that people aren't talking about you? We can apply this same logic to your digestive system. Just because you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) doesn't mean that you couldn't also have something else wrong with you. Given the chronic and persistent nature of your IBS symptoms, it can be difficult to decide what you need to tell your doctor about. Here is a guide to symptoms that are not typical of IBS and thus may require further medical investigation.

1. Rectal Bleeding

Photo: Keith Brofsky/Getty Images

Any signs of bleeding from the rectum should be immediately reported to your doctor. Signs of rectal bleeding, include blood on your toilet paper and stools that are bright red, dark red, black or tar colored. For further information, see:

2. Anemia

Anemia is diagnosed when a person's level of healthy red blood cells is abnormally low. Anemia can be caused by a wide variety of health problems, and so you would need to work with your doctor to determine what is causing your low red blood cell count.

3. Lack of Appetite

Experiencing severe IBS symptoms can certainly change a person's relationship with food, as it is easy to blame specific foods for causing digestive distress. Similarly, experiencing feelings of nausea might temporarily suppress appetite. A significant and persistent change in appetite, however, is not typical of IBS and could be indicative of a different health problem.

4. Significant Weight Loss

Sometimes IBS patients experience weight loss because they avoid foods for fear of setting off symptoms. As in a change in appetite, significant and unexplained weight loss would be a cause for concern and should be brought to the attention of your physician.

5. Vomiting

Although it is common for IBS patients to experience feelings of nausea, vomiting is not a typical symptom of IBS. Many mild illnesses cause some temporary bouts of vomiting. Call your doctor immediately if your vomiting continues for longer than two days or if the vomiting is accompanied by any unusual symptoms, such as extreme head or abdominal pain.

6. Fever

Fever is not a symptom of IBS and indicates the presence of infection. Call your doctor if you experience a temperature reading of more than 102 or if you have fever that lasts for longer than three days. Call your doctor immediately if you experience any significant and unusual symptoms along with your fever, such as severe headache, skin rash, stiff neck, persistent vomiting, difficulty breathing and pain when urinating. If in doubt, call your physician.

7. Middle of the Night Abdominal Pain and Cramping

People with IBS may experience abdominal pain and stomach cramps during the night, but usually when they have already awakened. The experience of severe pain that wakes a person from sleep is not typical of IBS. If you are unsure about the nature of your nighttime cramping, discuss it with your physician.

8. Onset of Symptoms after Age 50

It is not unheard of to develop IBS after the age of 50. The reason why late onset is on this list is that the risk of colon cancer increases with age. Therefore, the onset of disruptive digestive symptoms after the age of 50 would necessitate a more aggressive diagnostic approach to rule out the presence of colon cancer.

9. Abrupt Change in Symptoms

An IBS patient may find that his or her predominant symptom changes from diarrhea to constipation or vice versa over the course of time or even over the course of days. Before self-diagnosing, if you experience any sudden or significant change in symptoms, make sure to let your doctor know.

 

Related Reading from Dr. Bolen, Your IBS Guide:

Source:

Mayer, E. "Irritable Bowel Syndrome." NEJM 2008 358:1692-1699.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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