Childhood Intestinal Disorders: What to Expect

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 his stomach hurts often, he may have a problem in his 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.

Serious Intestinal Problems in Children

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 bulgar. 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 Trouble

Symptoms of intestinal disorders vary but may include:

Your child's symptoms will depend on:

  • Where the disorder is in her body
  • How serious it is
  • If it causes other health problems
  • Treatment she is receiving
  • How well she responds to treatments

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

Long-Term Effects of Intestinal Problems

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

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your child has symptoms of an intestinal disorder, see his doctor. The sooner he’s diagnosed, the sooner his 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 his diet will ease his 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

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Getting Help

You won't have to deal with your child’s condition alone. Your doctor will set up a care team to help you manage her 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 her symptoms and provide the nutrients she needs 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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 21, 2016

Sources

Children’s IBD Center at Mount Sinai: "The Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Center at Mount Sinai."

Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America: "Treating Children and Adolescents."

Cleveland Clinic: "Gastrointestinal Disorders and Bone Health."

Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center: "Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition."

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