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Irritable Bowel Syndrome Factsheet (for Schools)

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

What Teachers Should Know

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder that can cause cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It's sometimes called "nervous stomach" or a "spastic colon." IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Some foods — like milk, drinks with caffeine, chocolate, and foods that cause gas — can trigger IBS symptoms. Emotional stress, physical trauma, and infections can be triggers, too. Stress, in particular, plays a part in IBS. Because nerves in the colon are linked to the brain, stress (like taking tests, family problems, or moving) can affect how the colon functions.

Constipation and diarrhea are common symptoms of IBS and can cause stomach pain and discomfort that is relieved with bowel movements. Although IBS can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for students, it doesn't cause serious health problems. IBS symptoms can be managed through diet and lifestyle changes and by reducing stress. Doctors sometimes prescribe medicine to treat certain symptoms.

Students with IBS may:

  • need to use the bathroom often throughout the day
  • need seating closest to the bathroom or door
  • feel embarrassed because they're often in the bathroom
  • need to visit the school nurse for medicine, medical care, or to change clothes
  • have to avoid foods that trigger symptoms
  • have anxiety and depression

What Teachers Can Do

Students with IBS may miss class time for bathroom breaks. Make sure they have a hallway pass to use the bathroom whenever they need to. Allow extra time for assignments or for make-up work to be done at home.

Students with IBS can participate in physical education and other activities, but might have to opt out if they're not feeling well.

Stress can play a big part in IBS. Understanding your students' symptoms, diet, and concerns can help. Your students might need to see the school counselor to assist with coping strategies, especially if they're feeling overwhelmed.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2019