Childhood Intestinal Disorders: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 08, 2022
3 min read

Just about all parents have heard their child say, “I don’t feel well. I can’t go to school.” When that happens, you have to decide whether it's just an excuse to miss a math test or something more serious.

If your child says their stomach hurts often, they may have a problem in their intestine, the long, twisting tube that helps the body digest foods. Most intestinal disorders in children can be managed. The key is to work with your child's doctor to find the right treatment.

Two of the more serious intestinal disorders in children are:

Celiac disease. Children with celiac disease can’t absorb gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, farina, and bulgur. It's hard for them to get enough vitamin D. It’s also hard for them to get enough calcium, so they often have fragile, weak bones or osteoporosis. Celiac disease is passed down in families.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This is most likely to affect older children and teens. Two major types are Crohn’s disease, which can affect any part of the digestive tract, and ulcerative colitis, which usually affects only the lower intestine.

Symptoms of intestinal disorders vary but may include:

Your child's symptoms will depend on:

  • Where the disorder is in their body
  • How serious it is
  • If it causes other health problems
  • Treatment they are receiving
  • How well they respond to treatments

Symptoms that happen often can disrupt your child's daily routine. For example, if they have IBD and frequent stomach cramps or diarrhea, they may miss school and social events.

Over time, a child with an intestinal disorder can have:

  • Problems absorbing calcium
  • Weak or fragile bones
  • Inflamed skin, eyes, or joints
  • Growth problems
  • Delayed puberty
  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia

If your child has symptoms of an intestinal disorder, see their doctor. The sooner they're diagnosed, the sooner their symptoms can be treated.

Treatment for an intestinal disorder may include:

  • Medication to ease symptoms and inflammation
  • A change in eating habits. For example, if your child has celiac disease, cutting gluten from their diet will ease their symptoms. Kids with IBD may go on an elimination diet or receive special formula through a feeding tube.
  • Surgery to remove inflamed or damaged areas of the intestine in some IBD cases, though this is rare

You won't have to deal with your child’s condition alone. Your doctor will set up a care team to help you manage their treatment and daily life. Team members may include:

  • A doctor and nurse to focus on medical care
  • A nutritionist to help you plan a diet that will ease their symptoms and provide the nutrients they need to grow
  • A social worker who can connect you with helpful resources
  • Therapists and health coaches

There are no cures for these intestinal disorders, but they can be managed. With good care, your child can enjoy a normal life.