About Over the Counter Medications for Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common stomach problem that affects the large intestine. There is no known cause for IBS, so the treatment approach is focused on alleviating the symptoms associated with the syndrome. While mild cases of IBS require only dietary changes and stress reduction, moderate cases may require over the counter medications to alleviate the symptoms. There are several different approaches to the treatment of IBS with over-the-counter medications.


Some over the counter treatments for IBS depend on the type of IBS. It can be constipation-dominant, diarrhea-dominant or a combination of the two.


Constipation-dominant IBS treatment treatment may include bulk-forming laxatives. By increasing fiber intake, bowel movements occur more frequently. Bulk-forming laxatives include psyllium, calcium polycarbophil and wheat dextrin. These laxatives take from 12 to 72 hours to work. Osmolar agents, including polyethylene glycol, glycerine, magnesium sulfate and magnesium citrate help soften the stool to produce a bowel movement. The polyethylene glycol takes two to four days to have an effect, while the glycerin, magnesium sulfate and magnesium citrate take between 15 minutes and three hours to work. Bisacodyl pills, bisacodyl suppositories and senna stimulate the digestive tract to produce a bowel movement. The onset of action varies from 15 minutes to 12 hours for stimulant laxatives. Another treatment, an emollient, is docusate. However, docusate may not work as well as other treatments. If it does work, it takes 24 to 72 hours to have an effect.


To treat diarrhea-dominant IBS, anti-diarrheal medications are available over-the-counter. Diphenoxylate with stropine and loperamide slow the food movement in the digestive tract. Increasing fiber, by dietary means or by taking fiber supplements, can help alleviate diarrhea. These medications should only be used as needed, not as a daily medication regimen.

Herbal Supplements

A variety of natural supplements and herbs on the market carry claims of treating IBS and its symptoms. According to the medical resource UpToDate, there is no scientific evidence these herbs and natural therapies work. Studies done on these natural remedies have been flawed or were too small to produce accurate results. Peppermint oil is one of these natural remedies. Although it appears it may have some benefit to IBS sufferers, it also causes heartburn. Acidophilus and probiotics are unproven in treating IBS and its symptoms. Supplements that have no proven benefits include chamomile tea, evening primrose oil and fennel seeds. Some marketed natural treatments are unsafe, including wormwood and comfrey. Wormwood oil may damage the nervous system, and comfrey can cause liver problems.


Over-the-counter pain medications can reduce the stomach pain caused by IBS. The cramping of the intestines can be extremely painful. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications that work include ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen sodium and ketoprofin. Acetaminophen is another type of OTC medication that is helpful in reducing the pain associated with IBS.


It's important to see a doctor if symptoms of IBS exist. IBS shares many of the symptoms with IBD, and a doctor needs to rule out the possibility of one of these serious conditions. To rule out IBD, doctors may run a number of tests, including blood work, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer tomography (CT), barium study and sigmoidoscopy. IBD causes damage to the intestines and leads to serious issues, so it is imperative to rule it out before assuming it's IBS and benign.

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