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Ellis: Digestive problems in children

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By Glenn Ellis

Hearing a child say “my tummy hurts” can strike fear in the heart of a parent. Stomachaches in kids 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 (IBS), constipation, colitis, or an allergic reaction. In about nine out of 10 cases, IBS or functional dyspepsia (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 tends 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 reaction to dairy between the ages of 3 and 5, while white children usually contract it when they are 8 or 10 years old.

Recurring abdominal pain in children is increasingly being recognized as an initial sign of migraine headaches. Five to 15 percent of children with recurrent abdominal pain that isn’t attributable to any other source may be subject to migraines.

If your child is having problems with soiling (“#2”) accidents you’re certainly not alone. This is one of the most common problems seen by both pediatric GI and primary care providers.

Often, pain or discomfort anywhere in the abdomen is described as a stomach ache, although the stomach may not actually be the source of the pain. Stomach aches are often caused by conditions of the digestive tract, but can also be caused by conditions of the body wall, blood vessels, urinary tract, reproductive organs, or organs of the chest. So, keep in mind that children might say that their stomach hurts when the pain actually originates in a nearby organ, like the appendix.

When your child complains of abdominal pain, see if they can describe it to you. Here are different kinds of pain: 1) Generalized pain or pain over more than half of the belly. Your child can have this kind of pain when they have a stomach virus, indigestion, gas, or when they become constipated;  2) Cramp-like pain is likely to be due to gas and bloating. It is often followed by diarrhea. It is usually not serious; or 3) Colicky pain is pain that comes in waves, usually starts and ends suddenly, and is often severe.

If you have an infant or toddler, your child depends on you seeing that they are in pain. Suspect abdominal pain if your child is: 1) more fussy than usual; 2) drawing their legs up toward the belly; or 3) eating poorly.

Localized pain is pain in only one area of the belly. Your child may be having problems with their appendix, gallbladder, a hernia (twisted bowel), ovary, testicles, or stomach (ulcers).

Help your digestive system stay healthy by drinking lots of water and eating a healthy diet. Eating foods rich in fiber, and plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help your body grow properly and stay healthy. Getting regular exercise also helps your digestive system move and operate at its best.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

Glenn Ellis is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com