At some point in life, everyone will experience a digestive issue. These issues happen when the digestive system is disrupted and cannot function properly. Digestive issues have a variety of causes, including viral or bacterial infections, food allergies and poor diet.
Common Digestive Issues
If your child is having digestive troubles they may complain of a “stomach ache.” Key symptoms may include:
- abdominal pain
- gas pain
- rectal bleeding
- mouth sores
- skin rash
- unexplained weight loss
There are many types of digestive issues, and children may experience them in different ways. Digestive issues seen in children include: lactose intolerance, acid reflux, celiac disease (gluten intolerance), inflammatory bowel disease and food allergies, which can could irritate the esophagus and stomach.
Here’s a look at some common childhood digestive issues:
- Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. Children who are lactose intolerant may experience abdominal pain, nausea and/or gas after eating a dairy product such as ice cream or milk. Milk and soy intolerance is also a common digestive problem in infants. Babies may experience gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or episodes of colic. GERD is a treatable condition that occurs when acid reflux happens several times a week or causes damage to the esophagus.
- Celiac disease can often make children feel discomfort after eating products that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This disease can cause damage to the small intestine. If you suspect your child might have gluten intolerance, talk with your child’s pediatrician about getting tested.
Additionally, toddlers may show signs of digestive issues by refusing to eat. They may also have constipation or toddler’s diarrhea. Toddler’s diarrhea occurs when an otherwise healthy child has chronic diarrhea. Often this is caused by too much sugar in the child’s diet.
Diet can play a large role in digestive issues. If your child frequently has a digestive issue that is not related to an illness, such as the flu, it may be time to take a look at what they are eating.
Vegetables and fruits are key in preventing digestive issues. Children who don’t get enough fiber in their diet will typically have episodes of constipation.
It’s important to encourage your children to eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruits a day. Also, remove or limit sugary drinks and snacks, which can often cause diarrhea, especially in toddlers. To help picky eaters try new foods, set an example as a family by eating healthy and including your children in meal planning, preparation and selecting new fruits and vegetables. Review some of the recipes and nutrition tips from the All Children’s Hospital’s Fit4AllKids program.
Obesity and Digestion
Overweight or obese children are often prone to digestive issues. In addition to constipation or diarrhea due to poor diet, obesity increases the risk of developing GERD and diabetes, among many other health issues. For example, overweight or obese children could be at risk for developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease—when fat collects in the liver of a person who does not drink alcohol, causing inflammation and scarring of the liver, or even liver failure.
The pancreas, also a part of the digestive system, aids in food digestion and regulates blood sugar levels. Some overweight children experience insulin-resistant diabetes. This occurs when the body doesn’t use insulin properly, causing the pancreas to produce extra insulin. Eventually, the pancreas can’t keep up with the demand. This condition is known as Type 2 diabetes and is being seen more often in obese children and teens.
Treating Digestive Issues
Pediatric gastroenterologists have had specialized training to treat digestive, liver and nutritional problems in infants, children and teens. They use instruments designed for examining and treating pediatric patients and have extensive expertise in managing the digestive and nutritional issues in children.
There are many effective treatments for digestive issues, including medication, lifestyle and diet changes. For children with food allergies, avoiding the allergen may be all that is needed.
You should seek medical attention right away if a child is having intense abdominal pain, fever, blood in their stool, vomiting/vomiting blood and is unable to keep fluids in their system.
Michael J. Wilsey, M.D. is the vice chair of pediatric gastroenterology and an assistant professor of pediatrics at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dr. Wilsey completed medical school at the University of Miami School of Medicine before completing a pediatric residency and pediatric gastroenterology fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine.
Learn more about the gastroenterology and nutrition program and other services offered at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine.