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IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, and colon cancer are two conditions that can have a serious impact on the digestive system. While they share certain symptoms, they differ in many ways. In order to best manage your digestive health, it is important to understand the difference between the two.

Summary: The Difference Between IBS and Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is an illness characterized by malignant growths in the colon or rectum. It can be life-threatening if not caught early. However, early recognition and proper treatment can help to prevent the most severe complications of colon cancer.

Alternatively, irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic condition characterized by digestive issues. Those who experience IBS frequently experience symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain and irregular bowel patterns. 

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder associated with complications in the digestive system. Unlike other gastrointestinal diseases, there are no structural abnormalities related to IBS. Its exact cause is unknown but IBS is classified as a neurogastrointestinal disorder. These disorders all involve coordination problems in the brain and the gut during digestion. 

Common triggers of IBS are foods like caffeine, dairy and fatty foods, as well as stress, hormonal changes and infection. Populations at higher risk for IBS include females, those under 50 and those with a family history of IBS. 

Identifying The Symptoms of IBS

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Bloating or gas
  • Indigestion
  • Mucus in stool

What is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that can impact the large intestine, also known as the colon, and the rectum. It develops from growths in the colon’s inner lining. These growths are called polyps and they can become malignant over time. Once malignant, the cancer may spread to other parts of the body.

As with any type of cancer, colon cancer is caused by the uncontrollable growth and division of abnormal cells within the body. Some risk factors for developing colon cancer include family history of colon cancer or polyps, chronic ulcerative or Crohn’s colitis, obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol use.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Colon Cancer

  • Blood in stool
  • Persistent changes in bowel habits
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

IBS vs. Colon Cancer: Comparing Symptoms

The key symptoms associated with IBS are abdominal pain and cramping, bloating and gas, mucus in the stool and frequent alternations between diarrhea and constipation. On the other hand, the key symptoms associated with colon cancer are persistent changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool, persistent abdominal discomfort and unexplained weight loss.

While IBS and colon cancer may appear to have similar symptoms at the surface, there are some important differences to note. Symptoms like abdominal pain and bowel changes are often more time-limited in cases of IBS. In cases of colon cancer, changes in stool consistency may last for days at a time and pain persists despite bowel movements or comfort measures. Another notable difference is the presence of blood or mucus in the stool. Whitish mucus is more commonly noted in the stool in cases of IBS, while red-tinged, bloody stool can be associated with colon cancer. 

Diagnosis and Testing for IBS and Colon Cancer

Given the differences in both their causes and their presentation, the diagnostic process differs greatly between IBS and colon cancer. Testing for IBS is largely based on symptoms and ruling out other conditions. Testing for colon cancer is much more in-depth and involves a variety of diagnostic tools. 

IBS Diagnosis

Diagnosing IBS starts with a thorough review of your medical history and the symptoms you’re experiencing. Oftentimes, patients are asked to keep a detailed diary of their symptoms in order to paint the clearest picture possible. Though there is not a specific test to diagnose IBS, your provider may request various testing or imaging procedures in order to eliminate other conditions as the source of your symptoms. Using a combination of these two approaches, providers are able to both diagnose IBS and guide its management.

Colon Cancer Diagnosis

The diagnostic process for colon cancer is a bit more complex than it is for IBS. Providers may recommend a screening test such as a colonoscopy before signs or symptoms of colon cancer arise. If you do experience symptoms or if your screening test shows any abnormalities, further testing is required. Blood tests like a complete blood count or a comprehensive metabolic panel may be ordered, alongside imaging like x-ray, MRI, CT or PET scans. A small tissue sample called a biopsy can also be taken and sent off to confirm the presence of cancer cells.

Can IBS Lead to Colon Cancer?

While IBS and colon cancer have some similar symptoms and both impact the digestive tract, there is no direct evidence that IBS can lead to colon cancer. 

When to Consult a Doctor about IBS or Colon Cancer Symptoms

Early consultation and timely medical intervention are an important part of managing both IBS and colon cancer. Early intervention in IBS cases ensures that symptoms are addressed promptly, improving quality of life and preventing further complications. In colon cancer cases, early detection and intervention save lives, as early-stage cancer has notably higher survival rates. With primary care services provided by UCF Health, you can find a provider who is ready to address your GI concerns and armed with the knowledge to intervene.


When dealing with health issues like IBS or colon cancer, awareness and timely medical care are crucial. In particular, early detection and treatment of colon cancer can make the difference between life and death. For more information on both IBS and colon cancer, explore the extensive resources provided by UCF Health primary care.