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Common bowel problems – what could it be? An expert’s insight


Bowel problems in adults are not uncommon, affecting individuals of all ages and both men and women. But what are the signs and symptoms of bowel issues, and what are the warning signs of a more serious digestive illness?

With April being bowel cancer awareness month, we sit down with Mr Peter Goodfellow, Consultant General & Colorectal Surgeon, to learn more about common bowel troubles and when you should see a specialist.

‘There are many causes for bowel habit changes – most are not sinister’

There are many causes for our bowel habit to change and many types of bowel habit. The average person in the UK opens their bowel once a day but this varies widely with some people opening their bowel weekly and some 4 or 5 times a day and this can be normal for them.

However when our bowel habit changes this is one of the symptoms which are generally referred for investigation. There are many causes for a change to the bowel habit, and most are not sinister.

What are common bowel problems?

Common bowel problems in adults can include constipation and difficulties emptying the bowel, faecal incontinence, bowel urgency and diarrhoea.

Other bowel conditions can include Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (e.g. Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis). For these conditions, the severity of symptoms varies from person to person and is dependent upon a diagnosed condition.

Common causes of bowel problems

Common causes for bowel problems include dietary factors, infections in the bowel, irritability in the bowel, and diverticular disease (pockets on the bowel wall).

Other causes for bowel troubles may include medicines that your doctor may have prescribed for you for other health conditions. It’s well known that some medicines can lead to side effects that may upset your tummy and cause indigestion, diarrhoea or constipation. For example, certain painkillers, iron tablets and cough medicines can cause constipation, while some people get diarrhoea from taking antibiotics or blood pressure medicine. Always tell your doctor if your prescribed medicines are upsetting your tummy.

Less common causes of bowel issues are inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis), polyps and cancers.

Treatment for common bowel problems

Digestive complaints such as constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn and bloating are very common and usually treatable with lifestyle measures and medicines you can buy without a prescription from a pharmacy.

There’s a wide choice of pharmacy medicines for heartburn, indigestion and similar problems that are very good for short-term relief of symptoms.

It’s also a good idea to make changes to your lifestyle to reduce the risk of bowel trouble as well as other health conditions too. These changes include:

  • Eating less red and processed meat
  • Eating more fibre
  • Keeping hydrated
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Being more physically active
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Stopping smoking.

When should I see a doctor?

Generally in the UK it is now recommended that if you have a change to the way your bowel works that persists for longer than three weeks then you should consult your doctor to consider referral. Most people worry about developing a bowel cancer and the most common symptoms of this are:

Every 15 minutes somebody is diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. It’s treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early, and nearly everyone survives if diagnosed at the earliest stage. However this drops significantly as the disease develops, so these symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.

As with any medical condition, speak to your doctor if you have any concerns at any point – whether you are developing symptoms for the first time, or your existing symptoms are getting worse.

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