Most people have probably heard of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)—a gastrointestinal disorder with a wide range of incapacitating and sometimes embarrassing symptoms.
IBS is not a fatal condition, but it can destroy any plans you have for the next couple of days or even weeks.
Despite it being one of the most common disorders in people of all ages, surprisingly, not a lot is known about IBS.
For instance, "where it comes from" and "how to get it to go away" are, at this point, centuries-old unanswered questions.
Among the estimated 45 million people in the US suffering from IBS exists a small subgroup whose IBS-related symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue after a nasty bout of infection.
This subgroup suffers from what is known as post-infectious IBS.
Inflammation: A Possible Cause
Inflammation is an immune response to injury and foreign bodies. Under normal circumstances, the immune system activates and deactivates an inflammatory response at the right times to prevent infection.
Evidence shows in cases of gastrointestinal infection, there’s a greater quantity of inflammatory cells within the intestines’ lining. In healthy patients, inflammation dissipates over time, but in cases of post-infectious IBS, to deactivation times are slower, causing inflammatory cells to linger around for longer.
Whether inflammation is the true cause behind post-infectious IBS still remains to be seen, but seeing as how inflammation and IBS practically go hand-and-hand, this theory does have a bit of weight.
PI-IBS Risk Factors
There are three major factors identified in a 2014 study that increase the likelihood of developing post-infectious IBS.
1. Severity of Bacterial Infection
Not only can the presence of a certain type of bacteria lead to post-infectious IBS, but how long and how hard you suffer from the bacterial attack may also increase the chance of developing it later on. An estimated 10% of such patients will develop the condition at some point during the infection period. The ability to produce toxins like Shiga-like toxin-produce E. Coli (STEC).
Factors such as gender and age may also play a role in developing post-infectious IBS. Even though the disorder is more common in women, there isn’t any evidence that suggests that women have a “weaker” immune response to bacterial infection. Regarding age, post-infectious IBS has a greater chance of striking in the bowels of younger patients.
3. Psychological Distress
Not only do anxiety and other psychological disorders aggravate IBS attacks, but they’re also risk factors for post-infectious IBS. Psychological disorders can weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to illnesses.
Treatment Options and Recovery
Like IBS, post-infectious IBS is currently incurable, but patients have several treatment options open to them.
Treatment for post-infectious IBS varies from patient to patient, but antibiotics may actually increase the likelihood of developing the disorder.
In general, post-infectious IBS symptoms last as long as the bacterial infection. If you fear that you’ve been attacked by the stomach bug, vomiting can be a helpful way to reduce the risk of infection by half.
The silver lining for half of post-infectious IBS patients is that their digestive functions will return to their pre-infection state over time. The recovery rate differs from person to person, but in general, recovery is a long process that can take up to 10 years.
To put it simply, post-infectious IBS is IBS triggered by the presence of certain bacterial infections, but like traditional IBS, the exact cause is currently unknown.
Some researchers speculate that a weakened immune system can prolong inflammation which, in turn, adds kindle to the post-infectious IBS flame, but we’re still waiting on a definitive confirmation on this.
In the meantime, your best option is prevention—by making healthy lifestyle choices, you can reduce the risk of developing IBS and post-infectious IBS and having to go through the long, painstaking recovery process.