The possibility that 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) acts as a key sensitising agent in the aetiology of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is reviewed. The strategic locations of 5-HT and its receptors are described, the most dominant being the 5-HT3 and 5-HT4 type. 5-HT, acting mostly at 5-HT3 or 5-HT3-like receptors, enhances the sensitivity of visceral neurones projecting between the gut and the central nervous systems. 5-HT, acting at 5-HT4 receptors promotes the sensitivity of enteric neurones that react to luminal stimuli. 5-HT4 and 5-HT3 receptors also mediate, respectively, sensitising and physiological actions of 5-HT on gastro-intestinal motor and secretory functions. This distribution implies that some 5-HT3 receptor antagonists might reduce certain symptoms of IBS, such as pain, by reducing the reactivity of the visceral afferent neurones linking the gut with the brain and spinal cord. However, such antagonists are not likely to find widespread clinical acceptance because they can also affect normal lower bowel function and promote constipation. 5-HT4 receptor antagonists, by contrast, reduce 5-HT-induced enteric nerve hypersensitivity without notably affecting the function of the normal bowel. Accordingly, these agents may reduce the symptoms of IBS directly, by reducing the incidence of defecation and diarrhoea and indirectly, by reducing both 'rebound' constipation and the post-prandial discomfort and pain associated with gastrointestinal hyper-reactivity.