Because the prevalence of the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the general population is unknown, a questionnaire of intestinal symptoms was administered to a stratified random sample of 1058 women and 838 men. Subjects were asked if they had consulted a physician about such symptoms. One or more symptoms occurred frequently in 47% of women and 27% of men. Diagnosable IBS, defined as three or more symptoms, was present in 13% of women and 5% of men. Abdominal pain was the most common symptom, and recurrent intestinal pain was reported by 20% of women and 10% of men. All symptoms were more common in women except runny or watery stools. Most symptoms including pain were unrelated to age. Only half the people with diagnosable IBS had consulted a physician about it. The likelihood of consulting a physician was directly proportional to the number of symptoms and was similar in men and women after controlling for the number of symptoms. Of individual symptoms, the one most strongly associated with consulting was abdominal pain, especially in men. It is concluded that IBS is prevalent at all ages, especially in women, that it is nearly always painful, and that people with multiple symptoms are more likely to consult a physician.