Abstract The 5HT3 receptor antagonist alosetron has been tested in several trials on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. The aim of the present meta-analysis was to determine its effect on adequate relief of pain or global improvement of symptoms in IBS patients. Six large, multicentre, randomized, placebo-controlled trials fulfilled pre-set criteria for high quality and were included in the meta-analysis; 1762 patients were randomized to alosetron treatment and 1356 to placebo. Seventy-five per cent of the patients experienced diarrhoea-predominant IBS and 93% were females. The pooled odds ratio for adequate relief of pain or global symptoms improvement was 1.81 [95% confidence interval (CI) 1.57–2.10). The average number of patients needed to treat with alosetron for one patient to achieve improvement over placebo treatment was seven (95% CI 5.74–9.43). The present analysis shows that alosetron 1 mg b.i.d. positively impacts global symptoms, and pain and discomfort in non-constipated IBS female patients. One in four patients treated with alosetron may develop constipation. The efficacy of alosetron is unclear in male patients.