3 Pediatric Gastrointestinal Problems

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Some people only think about gastrointestinal disorders affecting adults, but many of them can start from birth or during childhood. There are several gastrointestinal disorders that can occur in children.

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances can cause a host of symptoms, making children sick and leading to poor quality of life. The most common food intolerances are lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance (celiac disease). Issues with lactose intolerance may be more obvious, especially when babies rely on formula. Regular formula containing lactose may cause diarrhea, discolored stools, and gas. Babies with lactose intolerance benefit from soy-based formula.

Celiac disease may take longer to notice in babies because much of the food they eat when they start eating solids are meats, vegetables, and some baby cereals. Celiac disease causes inflammation in the small intestines when consuming gluten, leading to symptoms similar to lactose intolerance, such as changes in bowel habits and gas. If the disease is not recognized and the child continues to eat gluten, they may experience more severe symptoms like malnutrition and joint pain.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of disorders that cause the immune system to attack the digestive system. Children with IBD will experience ongoing or frequent diarrhea, and there may be blood in their stools. They may lose their appetite, leading to weight loss or malnutrition. Other symptoms commonly associated with any autoimmune disease include fevers, joint pain, and fatigue. Since IBD causes damage throughout the digestive system, identifying the problem earlier may decrease the long-term effects of the condition and the need for surgery to remove damaged areas of the intestines. Doctors typically prescribe medications designed to suppress the immune system, which can reduce the number of flare-ups of the disease.

Congenital Abnormalities

Congenital abnormalities of the gastrointestinal system mean the child is born with structural problems. Many of these problems are obvious shortly after delivery, but in some instances, it may take longer to notice problems. Blockages or narrowing can occur anywhere along the digestive tract. The symptoms will depend on the extent of the narrowing and where it occurs in the digestive tract. For example, serious narrowing or a complete blockage of the digestive system will prevent babies from eating if the problem occurs in the upper digestive system, but if the problem occurs further down in the intestines, the baby may eat their first meal normally but experience an inability to pass waste.

Short bowel disease is a congenital condition where the small intestine is shorter than normal, which affects the ability of the small intestine to absorb calories and other nutrients. The severity of symptoms will depend on how well the small intestine can absorb nutrients. Babies with little ability to absorb nutrients will become significantly malnourished and dehydrated quickly. If the problem does not cause significant absorption problems, there may be little indication a problem exists.

Pediatric gastrointestinal problems may be mild and easier to manage, such as lactose intolerance, or they can be severe. Any ongoing issues with difficulty eating or changes in bowel habits should be discussed with your pediatrician for further evaluation and a referral to a specialist.

Contact your pediatric doctor to learn more.