Unlike many health conditions, everyone deals with digestive issues at some point in their lives. No matter how healthy you are, you have most likely experienced eating something that didn’t quite “sit right,” and made you feel uncomfortable for a day or two.
But how do you know if the issue you’re dealing with is “normal” or not?
As Ben Thomas, DO, and gastroenterologist says, “Everybody is different.” There is no one-size-fits-all checklist when it comes to gastrointestinal (GI) health. But there are certain markers to watch for.
“If you have symptoms that are interfering with your life, talk to your physician,” Dr. Thomas says. Often, he says, he will hear from patients that their GI issues are causing them to skip going out to dinner or even take trips to the grocery store. GI issues can be something that women feel embarrassment about, however, a physician can help with symptom management; you don’t have to adjust your life around your condition.
What are the red flags?
One common GI issue is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating; excess gas; and diarrhea or constipation—sometimes in alternating bouts.
Less common are more severe symptoms of IBS, including: blood in stool, unintentional weight loss, vomiting blood, and abdominal pain that doesn’t go away.
If you exhibit any of these more severe symptoms, it’s important to treat them like red flags and go to a doctor right away. With many conditions like IBS, treatment focuses on managing symptoms, however, Dr. Thomas explains, it is important to rule out pathological issues, such as colon cancer.
Who should you talk to?
For many women, their OB-GYN is their primary point of contact for their care. Gastrointestinal issues often don’t come up in the list of questions your OB-GYN will ask you. However, if you are having GI problems, you can mention your symptoms to your OB-GYN or primary care provider, who can then refer you to the best GI specialist.
Dr. Thomas notes that most women understand the importance of regular screenings when it comes to mammograms, pap smears, and yearly primary care visits. He emphasizes, however, that for those over the age of 50, screenings for colon cancer are just as important. “In the same way that screenings for cervical or breast cancer are important, it’s just as important to get screened regarding your colon health at appropriate times. A lot of GI symptoms won’t necessarily mean that something is seriously wrong,” says Dr. Thomas, “but it’s important to get screened to find out.”