5 things you shouldn't say to someone with a chronic digestive issue
Digestive issues can range from common, treatable conditions such as acid reflux and indigestion to chronic and often debilitating diseases such as Crohn's disease (inflammation of the digestive track that causes lifelong symptoms such as diarrhoea and abdominal cramps); irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); coeliac disease (a severe intolerance to gluten); and a number of other conditions.
While people who experience constant digestive issues might be symptom-free for months and not appear to be sick at all, a chronic digestive issue can severely affect one's quality of life – at home, socially and at work.
If you have a friend or family member who suffers from a digestive illness, you might be tempted to give unsolicited advice. Here are some things you should rather not say to them:
1. 'I know someone who suffers from IBS and she's on the xyz diet. She is fine now.'
You want to give advice and have the best of intentions. But what you should know is that they've probably already exhausted a long list of treatments. Their food choices are limited as is, and what works for one person might not work for another. Only a medical professional working on a specific case has the necessary insight to suggest or prescribe treatments.
Rather say: “I know someone who suffers from IBS and they did the following. I understand how hard it can be to find a treatment that works.”
2. 'Come on, surely you can come out for one drink/meal/concert. It can’t be that bad.'
If you’ve never experienced the panic of not knowing when debilitating and often embarrassing symptoms – such as crippling abdominal pain, nausea or diarrhoea – can start flaring up, it’s likely that you don’t understand that the challenge of not knowing where the closest bathroom is/having to fight a crowd/having to queue for a toilet/not being able to go home when you need to.
People who suffer from a chronic digestive issue tend to schedule their day around when symptoms might flare up. They might also experience a lot of underlying fatigue.
Rather say: “See how you feel on the day, but you are welcome to join in any time!”
3. 'I also feel bloated after eating pizza! I get it.'
Mild food intolerance and the occasional bout of indigestion cannot be compared to the symptoms of conditions like coeliac disease. Be wary of comparing your symptoms to theirs.
Rather say: "This must be really tough for you. I’m here if you ever want to talk."
4. 'But you haven’t had any symptoms for months! Are you sure it hasn't gone away?'
Symptoms connected to a chronic digestive condition can come and go, making it hard to manage. A sufferer may be able to work out the triggers, but a flare-up can still be hard to predict. Just because someone doesn’t look sick or haven’t shown obvious symptoms for a while, it doesn’t mean that the disease isn’t still there.
Rather say: “I understand how unpredictable things may be, but I’m here to help!”
5. 'Shame man, I understand what you're going through! I had a stomach bug last week.'
While you don’t mean any harm comparing symptoms, don't do it. While a common digestive illness such as a stomach bug may be a nasty experience, it's a one-off – and people with IBS may suffer for years.
Rather say: "If I feel so horrible from a stomach bug, I can only imagine what you must be going through on a regular basis."
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