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Children's Health

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Intussusception - Topic Overview

What is intussusception?

Intussusception means that one part of the intestine has folded into itself, like a telescope. This can happen anywhere along the intestinal tract. It usually happens between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine.

The part of the intestine that folds inward may lose some or all of its blood supply. This section of the intestine becomes swollen and painful. Intussusception needs to be treated right away. If not treated, it can cause life-threatening problems, such as an infection (peritonitis) or a hole or opening (perforation) in the intestine.

The problem usually happens in young children.

What causes intussusception?

The cause of intussusception camera.gif in children isn't known in most cases. Sometimes it happens after a child has a cold or has inflammation in the stomach and intestines.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually begin suddenly. Your child may:

  • Act fussy.
  • Vomit often.
  • Have severe belly pain and cramping that last from 1 to 5 minutes. Afterward, your child may seem normal, but another period of pain may start 5 to 30 minutes later.
  • Have diarrhea or stools that contain blood or mucus.
  • Have a swollen, painful belly. Your child may have a lump in the upper right side of the belly.

Your child may be getting worse if he or she has breathing problems or a fever or is dehydrated.

If your child has symptoms of intussusception, call your doctor right away.

How is intussusception diagnosed?

The doctor will ask about your child's health history and symptoms and will do an exam. Intussusception can be hard to diagnose, because symptoms may come and go.

Your child may need an X-ray, an ultrasound, an enema, or other tests to confirm whether he or she has intussusception.

How is it treated?

Intussusception needs to be treated in the hospital. Treatment works best if it begins within 24 hours after the start of symptoms. Most of the time, intussusception is treated with an enema. In some cases, surgery may be needed.

  • Enema. During an enema, air, saline, or barium (a milky-white liquid) is flushed through a child's rectum into the intestines. The enema increases the pressure in the child's intestine. This can cause the affected area to return to its normal position. It helps about 75 out of 100 children with intussusception.1
  • Surgery. This may be needed if enemas haven't fixed the problem after two or three tries, or if the intestine has been damaged. A cut (incision) is made through the skin into the belly, and the intestine is stretched out and returned to its normal position. Any damaged part of the intestine is removed.
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