The ubiquitous nature of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), coupled with a lack of good treatment options, has created the impression that the condition must represent a large drain on health-care resources. The literature certainly appears to support this view but is largely based on patients seen in referral centres (10-15%) and it may not be appropriate to extrapolate these data to the IBS population as a whole (85-90%). In addition to reviewing such literature that exists on the economics of IBS, this paper contains some new data, which suggest that the direct costs of the condition, certainly in the UK, may not be quite as high as has previously been assumed. This may be partly due to factors such as the low cost of the drugs used to treat the condition and the tendency for many patients to stop consulting because of disenchantment with the inadequacies of current therapy. Conversely, the indirect and intangible costs of the disorder appear to be much greater, but these burdens obviously do not have such an impact on those responsible for purchasing and providing health care for IBS sufferers. Paradoxically, if a new, effective therapy for IBS were forthcoming, the situation could change dramatically, especially if it involved a new drug. Any such agent would inevitably be more expensive than anything available today, leading to a potentially dramatic escalation in the direct costs of this disorder.