What is IBS is one of the most common questions potential sufferers ask.

Woman and Home have teamed up withThe IBS Networkin order to raise awareness about the uncomfortable illness.

Of all the illnesses that affect the gut, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common. Affecting about 15% of people in the UK and slightly more prevalent in women than men, it can occur at all ages. The symptoms are a combination of abdominal discomfort, either pain or bloating, plus a disturbance in defaecation, which may be either diarrhoea or constipation or a mixed pattern.

Specific symptoms such as frustrated defaecation (wanting to go without being able to), pain relieved by passing a motion, and the passage of mucus are common. People with IBS also frequently experience backache, fatigue, indigestion, anxiety, depression and many other bodily symptoms.

The bowel symptoms are really those of irritation and found in other diseases that affect the bowel. So it is important that the doctor rules out the more common diseases that affect the gut such as Coeliac Disease, Crohn's Disease and Colitis and is mindful of the possibility of bowel cancer, though these are much less common than IBS.

Red flag symptoms such as weight loss and the passage of blood may signal the possibility of more life threatening conditions, but can be screened out by specific blood and stool tests. There is no single agreed cause for IBS, though it may be instigated by an attack of gastroenteritis, a course of antibiotics or a particularly traumatic experience.

Many patients with IBS show a mild inflammation and sensitivity affecting the bowel. Changes in food and mood often trigger attacks of IBS in people with a sensitive gut. Among the foods that can upset the sensitive gut are fatty foods (e.g. meat, sauces and cream), coffee, hot spices and fermentable, poorly absorbed sugars (FODMAPs) found in many fruits, onions, beans and lentils, sprouts and cauliflower, milk and wheat. IBS symptoms and sensitivity to foods may fluctuate according to ‘what is happening'.

IBS is so diverse and so influenced by a person's diet, life style and life experience, that management is best carried out by the informed patient in collaboration with their health care professional.The IBS Network, the UK's national charity for IBS, publishesThe IBS Self Care Planon its website which offers a comprehensive information resource on IBS and its management, which is often an individual combination of dietary restriction, stress management, medications and therapies. It also offers one to one support via e-mail, telephone helpline, self-help groups and can't-wait cards.