Everybody gets irritable once in a while, like when you've had a bad day or didn't get enough sleep. But what do you do if your intestines are irritable? Tell them to take a nap?

Actually, your intestines (also called bowels) can have something called irritable bowel syndrome. It causes cramps, bloating (puffiness in your belly area), constipation (when you can't poop), and diarrhea (when you poop too much).

If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you can take steps to minimize or prevent these symptoms.

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a fairly common problem with the way the large intestine (say: in-TES-tin) works. The large intestine (also known as the colon) absorbs water and nutrients from the partially digested food that enters the colon from the small intestine. Anything that is not absorbed is slowly moved on a pathway out of your body. These undigested and unabsorbed food particles are also known as stool, a bowel movement, or poop.

Here's why an intestine gets "irritable." To have a bowel movement, the muscles in the colon and the rest of the body have to work together. If this process is somehow interrupted, the contents of the colon can't move along very smoothly. It sort of stops and starts, doesn't move, or sometimes moves too fast. This can hurt and make a kid feel awful. Doctors also believe that people with IBS may have more sensitive bowels, so what might cause a little discomfort in one person causes serious pain for someone with IBS.

Between 5% to 20% of kids have IBS, and about 20% of adults do, too. It's not fun, but the good news is that IBS doesn't lead to more serious problems. It's irritating, but it can be managed and kids can do whatever activities they like in spite of it.

What Are the Symptoms of IBS?

All kids have an occasional stomachache, and most will experience constipation (hard stools that make it difficult to go to the bathroom) or diarrhea (stools that are really loose and watery). A kid with IBS may sometimes feel like he or she can't quite finish going to the bathroom. Or, if he or she has gas, instead of passing it, it may feel trapped inside.

Why Do Kids Get IBS?

No one really knows what causes IBS, although it tends to run in families.

Stress can affect kids with IBS, too. Stress can speed up your colon and slow your stomach down. Stressful feelings also can be a trigger for IBS. Let's say a kid has a big test at school the next day and really worries about it, that's stress. Or if a kid sees his or her parents fighting and begins to feel worried — that's stress, too. A kid in this situation can learn to handle stress in other ways, so IBS symptoms will go away or at least be less severe.

What kids eat can also be a trigger, but this can be different for each kid. For example, a high-fat diet may bother some kids. Drinks high in sugar may cause diarrhea in other kids. Eating big meals and spicy foods often cause problems, so if you have IBS, try to avoid those.

What Will the Doctor Do?

Because IBS symptoms (such as cramps or diarrhea) are so common, it's important to remember that just feeling this way once in a while doesn't mean you have IBS. But when a kid has these problems regularly, a doctor might start wondering if it could be IBS. Here are some questions the doctor might ask:

  1. How often does the kid's stomach hurt? Every week? Every 2 weeks? Every day? A kid with IBS will have a stomachache at least 12 weeks out of a year. That's a lot!
  2. What makes that pain go away? If the pain stops after the kid poops, there's a good chance it's IBS.
  3. How often does the kid have to poop? With IBS, it could be more often or less often than usual.
  4. Now the gross one: What does the poop look like? Sometimes kids notice that their poop looks, well, different than usual. It may be a different color, slimier, or contain something that looks like mucus (snot). That's a real signal to the doctor that a kid might have IBS.

There is no test to diagnose IBS. Doctors often diagnose the problem just by listening to a person describe the symptoms. That's why it's really important for kids to talk with their parents and their doctor about their symptoms — even if it seems embarrassing.

How Is IBS Treated?

In severe cases, the doctor might give a person some medicine for IBS to reduce pain, as well as help manage gas, constipation, diarrhea, and the need to rush to the bathroom.

The best solution, however, is for a kid to learn what makes the symptoms worse and avoid whatever it is. A kid can start by becoming a detective (with his or her parents) and trying to figure out what seems to cause the IBS symptoms.

Keeping a diary is one way to do that. No, it's not the kind of diary you write poems in (what rhymes with diarrhea, anyway?). Think of it as a way for kids to record what they ate and whether they had any IBS symptoms afterward. Kids also might write down when they're feeling particularly anxious, like before a big test, to see if that made the problems any worse.

Although each person's food triggers may be a little different, here are some common ones:

  • big meals
  • spicy foods
  • high-fat foods
  • chocolate
  • some dairy products like ice cream or cheese

It's not just what a person eats — what he or she doesn't eat also may lead to IBS symptoms. Fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods like beans and popcorn can help keep a kid's colon running properly. Your doctor might recommend a fiber supplement as well. Drinking water can help a cranky colon, too.

Learning how to handle stress can help kids, whether they have IBS or not. One way to do that is to talk about your problems with other people, such as parents and friends — and if it's a medical problem, your doctor. Here are some questions a kid might ask himself or herself:

  • Am I putting too much pressure on myself at school?
  • Am I getting enough sleep?
  • Do I get time to play and be active, such as riding a bike or playing basketball?
  • Do I skip breakfast and then get so hungry that I nearly inhale my lunch? Eating more slowly could help IBS symptoms.

It would be good to talk with a parent, or another trusted adult, about the answers to these questions. It might sound funny but just talking to someone can make you — and your irritable bowels — feel better!

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.