The efforts of clinical researchers, lay organizations and pharmaceutical companies have increased the public profile of irritable bowel syndrome and made it a respectable diagnosis. Diagnostic symptom criteria encourage a firm clinical diagnosis, which is the foundation of a logical management strategy. This begins with education. Reassurance that no structural disease threatens should be tempered with the reality that symptoms are likely to recur over many years. Patients expect diet and lifestyle advice, even if this is not specific to irritable bowel syndrome. Only a few of those with irritable bowel syndrome see doctors, and even fewer see specialists. Therefore, the treating physician should ascertain the reason for the visit, the patient's fears and the presence of any comorbid illness, such as depression, that might require treatment in its own right. No drug treatment is useful for all of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and many patients require no drug at all. If used, drugs should target the predominant symptom. Alosetron, a 5-HT3 antagonist, is effective in treating women with irritable bowel syndrome who also have diarrhoea. Tegaserod, a 5-HT4 agonist, is useful for women with irritable bowel syndrome who are constipated. Most patients with irritable bowel syndrome need psychological support. Reassurance, discussion and relaxation techniques can be provided by the family doctor. Difficult psychopathology may require referral to a mental health professional, and the gastroenterologist can settle diagnostic uncertainties. In all cases, successful treatment depends on a confident diagnosis and the strength of the doctor-patient relationship.