Irritated Bowel – Diseases, Causes and Symptoms

Any organ can become irritated and the bowels (small and large intestines) are no different. Form a medical perspective, the term ‘irritated’ usually means that there is some changes in normal function or there are symptoms such as pain, discharges like blood and so on. This usually indicates inflammation. However, there are bowel conditions where there is no inflammation yet the organ is clearly ‘irritated’.

What is bowel irritation?

Bowel irritation is any condition where there is frequent bowel movements, diarrhea, abdominal cramps (related to the bowels) and bloating. Although bowel irritation is a non-medical term, it should not be confused with irritable bowel syndrome which is one of the possible causes of the symptoms that may be referred to as bowel irritation. As a non-medical term, bowel irritation may be subjective. However, it denotes an abnormality from normal bowel function.

What is normal bowel function?

For the purposes of understanding the term bowel irritation, it is important to consider what is considered as normal bowel function. Firstly the small intestine is responsible for digestion and absorption of nutrients. The large intestine is responsible for the reabsorption of water and the formation of stool. The bowels are active to varying degress through the day but we do not experience most of the sensations or hear most of the sounds that arise from it.

Normal bowel habit refers to the frequency of passing stool. This ranges from three times a day to three times a week. Passing stool more than three times a day is considered to be diarrhea, whereas passing stool less than three times a week is considered to be constipation. Passing stool should not be difficult or painful despite the urging that subsides once the rectum is urging.

Read more on frequent bowel movements.

This urging arises as a means to notify a person of the need to defecate. It is not painful. The stool that is passed should be firm but soft, smooth and elongated. It is typically a tan to brown color. Expulsion of gas known as flatulence is also considered normal. It occurs at various times throughout the day as well as during defecation but should not be excessive.

Signs and Symptoms

As mentioned, bowel irritation is not a specific digestive condition. Instead a host of different conditions may present with symptoms that are referred to as bowel irritation. The predominant symptoms in these conditions include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Tenderness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Excessive flatulence
  • Bloating – a feeling of fullness
  • Abdominal distension
  • Changes in appetite

The presence of fever, fatigue and weight loss may be indicative of specific conditions but may not always be present in all of the conditions discussed below. Fever is usually present with infections while weight loss is more likely with chronic conditions and cancer. Fatigue is a non-specific symptom but may arise with severe acute conditions and dehydration among other complications.

Read more on painful bowel movements.

Causes of Bowel Irritation

These are some of the conditions with symptoms that may be referred to as bowel irritation. There is a large degree of overlap of the symptoms in these conditions. Some of the causative conditions can be serious and even deadly if left untreated. Therefore it is necessary that a medical professional diagnoses the exact causative condition, often after running the necessary diagnostic investigations.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder. This means that there is no diseases in the bowels despite the abnormality in bowel habit and bowel-related symptoms. The problem in IBS appears to be due to abnormal movement through the bowels, in that bowel motility is either faster or slower than normal. This may lead to diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain and other symptoms like bloating.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition where the bowels are inflamed. It appears to be due to autoimmune factors where the immune system attacks the bowels. There are two types – ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms include episodes of diarrhea, abdominal pain, mucus and blood in the stool. There may be an associated bowel cancer risk in ulcerative colitis.


Enterocolitis refers to inflammation of the small intestine (enteritis) and large intestine (colitis). It can occur due to various different causes but is more commonly seen with infections. Viruses, bacteria or protozoa may be responsible. These disease-causing agents may be airborne or enter through the mouth in contaminated food or water. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are the main symptoms.


Hemorrhoids is inflammation of the rectal veins. These veins become swollen, bleed easily and may protrude. It is a common rectal condition and associated with constipation or chronic diarrhea. Sitting on the toilet for prolonged periods are another possible cause. Symptoms include rectal bleeding, rectal itching, mucus from the rectum and tensemus (urging for a bowel movement even after passing stool).


Diverticula are pouches that form in the colon, particularly in the elderly. These outpouches may be come inflamed due to an infection and this is known as diverticulitis. If left untreated, diverticulitis can lead to complications such as bowel obstruction and peritonitis. Diverticulitis presents with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and a change in bowel habit (usually constipation but sometimes diarrhea).

Bowel Obstruction

Obstruction of the bowel may be partial or complete. It can occur in either the small or large intestine. The obstruction may occur for various different reasons from strangulation of the bowel in a hernia, to a foreign object and failure of the bowel muscles to function thereby leading to distension. In the colon, bowel obstruction can also occur due to impacted feces. Vomiting, abdominal cramps, loss of appetite and constipation may be present.

Bowel Cancer

Cancer of the small intestine is uncommon but cancer of the colon and rectum is among the top five most common cancers. Colorectal cancer is also one of the most deadly cancers. There may be little to no symptoms in the early stages of colorectal cancer. Eventually a change in bowel habit (diarrhea or constipation), rectal bleeding and unintentional weight loss may become evident.

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