Do Over-The-Counter Medications Work for IBS?

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Trying over-the-counter medications for IBS can feel like taking a shot in the dark. There are so many options available, all making bold claims about how quickly they can relieve symptoms.

Choosing the right one becomes overwhelming.

IBS is a very personal problem and affects everyone differently, and no over-the-counter medication (OTC) will be able to completely solve everyone’s problems. But the right choice can alleviate symptoms, and make it easier to get back to daily life.

Before you start taking over-the-counter medication for IBS, you need to understand what works, and which medications make claims they can’t back up.

With this guide, we’ll investigate which over-the-counter medications might be right for your IBS. Don’t forget to speak to a healthcare professional before starting a new treatment.

Choosing OTC Medications For Digestive Health

There is no “one size fits all” OTC medication for IBS. Irritable bowel syndrome is tricky, because we don’t yet fully understand the cause. Treating IBS, unfortunately, isn’t as simple as taking a single medication.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t medications that can help to improve digestive health overall. These OTC medications won’t always target a specific symptom. Instead, they work to improve the overall health of the digestive tract.

OTC medications for improving digestive health come in several forms, and in many cases research is ongoing. The most popular options are:

  • ProbioticsProbiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that can live in the body. While bad bacteria can cause illness, the good bacteria of probiotics can help to regulate the digestive tract. Studies have shown probiotics are good for IBS and relieving pain, although more research is needed.
  • Herbal remedies – Herbal medicines are always a popular choice for those looking for relief from symptoms but wary of pharmaceuticals. Peppermint oil has been shown to have an effect on pain management and improving general symptoms of IBS.
  • Vitamin D – Low levels of vitamin D are linked to numerous health problems, and could potentially be a contributing factor for your IBS. Although further studies are needed, taking vitamin D supplements can potentially improve quality of life in those suffering with IBS.
  • Digestive enzymes – Digestive enzymes supposedly help to break down difficult to digest proteins that may be causing IBS. Early research does indicate that they may provide relief for those with IBS. Knowing which foods you struggle to digest can help when choosing the right digestive enzymes for IBS.

These medications may be able to provide some relief, but they work best as only a part of an overall treatment plan. Any OTC treatment for improving digestive health must be combined with a healthy diet, and frequent exercise. Peppermint oil and probiotics are a good starting place.

OTC Medications For Diarrhea

Finding the right medication for treating diarrhea is often a matter of urgency. Targeted medications for diarrhea will rarely help with overall symptoms of IBS, but they can certainly help the immediate problem.

  • Loperamide – Commonly sold under the brand name Imodium, Loperamide is a popular OTC medication for short-term relief from diarrhea. Loperamide can have side effects such as constipation, cramps and dizziness, and should not be taken regularly without discussing with your doctor. Although it can help ease diarrhea, it will not help with other IBS symptoms like pain and bloating.
  • Calcium – Calcium is a traditional choice for treating diarrhea, and it does have a constipating effect. It should only be taken in the short-term, as it is possible to take too much. Calcium carbonate isn’t widely recommended by doctors, but many IBS sufferers have found it helpful.  It may also settle the stomach if you have indigestion (What causes indigestion).
  • Bismuth – Bismuth subsalicylate, often sold as Pepto-Bismol, is an antidiarrheal medication. A popular method for self-treatment, it does little to relieve any other symptoms of IBS.

It’s important to be careful when taking diarrhea medication, and to only use it in the short term. Overuse can lead to constipation.

OTC medications for diarrhea can stop or ease diarrhea in the short term. However, they can’t help with other IBS issues, such as stomach pain.

Many OTC diarrhea medications do carry a risk of side effects. Speak to a health care professional before using.

OTC Medications For Constipation

Living with constipation is uncomfortable, and often incredibly painful. Many sufferers find that fast treatment is necessary for improving quality of life. 

OTC medications can offer relief from constipation, but they’re best used as only a part of a treatment plan, which may also include increased fluid intake and regular exercise. However, some may find that the right medication is able to solve the specific issue completely.

OTC medications for constipation include:

  • Magnesium – Naturally found in foods we eat, and few suffer from a magnesium deficiency. However, IBS can lower magnesium levels, sometimes leading to constipation. Magnesium supplements can improve bowel movement by increasing the amount of water in the intestine. In too high a dose, it may cause diarrhea.
  • Flaxseed – Less an OTC medicine, and more of a natural remedy, flaxseed has become a popular way of relieving constipation. It’s a soluble fiber, which dissolves in water and softens stools, so they’re easier to pass. Research has shown that flaxseed can be used effectively to treat constipation.
  • Fiber supplements – Many fiber supplements are on the market.  They can be pills, powders, or gummies.  People should aim to get 25-30 grams of fiber per day through diet.  If you’re having trouble doing this, a fiber supplement may help.
  • Miralax – This is an osmotic laxative which helps to pull more fluid into the intestine.  This helps increase the speed at which stool moves through the bowel and softens the stool.  
  • Colace – This is a stool softener.  It can help soften the consistency of stool, making it easier to pass.
  • Dulcolax – This is a stimulant laxative.  It increases contractions of the bowel and helps with motility.
  • Suppositories and enemas – These medications are inserted into the rectum.  They can help increase fluid content of the stool and stimulate the urge to have a bowel movement. Learn how to use a suppository for constipation.

As with diarrhea medications, these are best used in the short-term. Discuss with your doctor if more long term use is needed.

OTC Medications Final Thoughts

It is possible to buy over-the-counter medications which are effective in easing the symptoms of IBS.

However, they rarely work as long-term treatments. Diarrhea and constipation medications can effectively treat individual symptoms, but provide little relief against other effects of IBS like pain and bloating.

Before using an OTC medication, speak to a healthcare professional about whether it’s the right choice for you. An OTC medication should be used alongside diet and lifestyle changes, to effectively treat IBS.

For more articles on IBS relief, check these out:

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Kelly Chow

    Kelly first experienced IBS symptoms at the age of 24 with major-to-severe symptoms. She underwent all types of tests and experimented with many treatments before finally finding ways to manage her symptoms. Kelly has written and shared ebooks and Gluten-Free diet plans that she has used to live life like she did before IBS.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.

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