Digestive issues in children

GLENN ELLIS | 9/25/2018, 8:42 p.m.
Hearing a child say “my tummy hurts” can strike fear into the heart of a parent. Stomachaches in children can ...
Stock Photo

Strategies for Well-Being

Hearing a child say “my tummy hurts” can strike fear into the heart of a parent. Stomachaches in children can come and go, but frequent tummy troubles may need medical attention.

Stomachaches, though, are a common complaint among children, and most are completely normal. They usually suggest that a child ate too much or needs to go to the bathroom. But how do you know when tummy troubles signal something more serious?

If your child’s bellyaches start to interfere with daily life – hindering school attendance or participation in events like birthdays or football games – they may be worth a trip to the doctor’s office.

Some of the indicators that a child’s stomachache might be serious include weight loss, fever, significant vomiting, severe diarrhea, blood in the stool or vomit, or pain in the upper right or lower right abdomen. If a child has any of these symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

A child’s digestive system consists of parts of the body working together to change the food and liquids we eat and drink into the fuel and building blocks our bodies need. Digestion, the process of breaking down food, may take several hours to a few days, depending on what you eat. Each body part in the digestive system – mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, large intestine, colon and rectum – plays an important role in digestion.

What causes digestive issues in children?

If the pain is in the upper right abdomen, gallbladder disease, although rare in children, could be the problem. More common causes are colitis (inflammation of the large intestine) or irritation in the first part of the small intestine.

When a child’s ache is below the belly button, the most common causes are irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, colitis or an allergic reaction. In about 9 out of 10 cases, IBS or functional dyspepsia, which is indigestion without a known cause, are the disorders behind the pain.

IBS symptoms, such as loose and more frequent bowel movements, often occur after eating and may be treated with dietary changes, medications or probiotics. Functional dyspepsia can cause ulcer-like symptoms like nausea, vomiting, filling up easily and bloating. Treatments include acid-reducing drugs, which tend to work well in children.

Celiac disease is another issue that children may suffer from. It causes a lifelong intolerance to gluten – found in wheat, barley, rye and some oats – and can cause abdominal pain, bloating and loose or hard stools. A dietary change is usually enough to treat it.

Lactose intolerance makes it difficult for the body to efficiently process lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products, and can therefore prompt stomachaches.

While both conditions aren’t as common among children, lactose intolerance happens at different ages, mainly because of genetic differences. African American children, for instance, tend to develop allergic reactions to dairy between the age of 3 and 5, while White children usually contract it when they are 8 or 10 years old.