What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD?
IBS in Children and Teens
Learn how to help your child with irritable bowel syndrome.
By Brian Hoyle
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Life with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a frequent barrage of abdominal cramps and bloating and the miseries of diarrhea and constipation. The bowel malfunction at the root of IBS affects nearly 20 percent of Americans, or more than 58 million people. Children and teenagers are not exempt: Estimates of IBS among kids in the United States range from 7 percent of elementary school children to 14 percent of kids in high school.
Aside from the discomfort, IBS can be embarrassing for youngsters and teenagers and can add to the stresses of growing up. Help from family members and other caregivers may ease the physical and mental pain.
IBS in Children: Common Symptoms
Most kids experience tummy troubles at one time or another. An occasional stomachache or bloating should not send you rushing to your doctor. But regular occurrence of two or all of the following could be signs of IBS:
- Pain or abdominal discomfort that is relieved for a while by a bowel movement
- Change in the regular bathroom routine (fewer or more bowel movements)
- Change in appearance of the feces
Detecting IBS symptoms in older kids and teens can pose a particular challenge because children this age are often embarrassed about discussing bathroom topics with anyone, let alone an adult family member or trusted caregiver. That’s why parents may often be the last to know about symptoms. If you notice that your child is making more frequent trips to the bathroom or seems to be experiencing stomach pain, press him for information.
IBS in Children: Risk Factors
The chances of developing IBS nearly double when other family members have the disorder. However, environmental factors — particularly the family food routine — may also play a role. Being aware of family history and tailoring meals to be more IBS-friendly are two important ways to help your child or teen.
"Sometimes people with IBS are eating healthy, but not healthy for their gut. Many times, people will simply try to increase their fiber intake and are unintentionally increasing their symptoms," says Anna Leiper, a registered dietitian at the Capital District Health Authority in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Leiper notes that there is a big difference between soluble fiber, which absorbs water and so helps stool move through the intestinal tract more easily and a bit more slowly, and insoluble fiber, which is not as water-friendly and encourages more rapid movement of stool (an aid if someone is constipated).
Caregivers can help by selecting foods that contain more soluble fiber (examples include oat bran, fruit, dried peas, and beans) or insoluble fiber (for example, 100 percent bran cereal or wheat bran), depending on whether the child is constipated or has diarrhea.
Other conditions that have been linked to IBS include:
- Viral or bacterial gastroenteritis (infection of the intestinal tract that includes inflammation), which can disrupt the gastrointestinal system
- Stress, an unfortunate but normal part of growing up
- Antibiotic use (which can upset the normal bacterial content of the intestinal tract, although selected antibiotics may also help ease symptoms of IBS)
IBS in Children: How Parents Can Help
There is no cure for the symptoms of IBS. But by helping shape the day-to-day routine, caregivers can greatly improve the discomfort associated with IBS. "The best advice is to look at the total picture of the IBS patient. How do they live? What do they eat? What are the stressors? Is there a true organic disease that has been misdiagnosed?" says Anthony Starpoli, MD, director of gastroesophageal research and endosurgery at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, and an assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y.
And make sure that your child’s overall health isn’t neglected. "Rest and regular exercise are crucial for humans to enable the body to work most efficiently. Often times, we overlook these two things and don't realize their positive impact on our digestive system," adds Leiper.
Some ideas for IBS symptom management:
- See your doctor:A physical examination and information on family history can help your child or teen's doctor determine the best course, which can include prescribed as well as over-the-counter medication.
- Change the diet:Eating more frequent and smaller meals and avoiding foods that are identified as triggering symptoms are two successful strategies. Caregivers can be especially important in helping teens establish good eating habits.
- Remind your child about lifestyle factors:Being an adolescent and teenager can be an angst-filled time. Plenty of sleep and exercise are two important stress-relieving ways to combat IBS. Help your teen understand better the bowel-related downsides of late nights, alcohol overindulgence, use of drugs, and wolfing down junk food.
- Be an advocate:Make sure teachers understand that your child’s school routine may include frequent trips to the bathroom. Encourage your child or teen to confide in friends and seek their support rather than hiding his symptoms. Reassure him that he is not alone.
By keeping track of triggers and making a few lifestyle changes, you can help your child or teen manage his IBS symptoms.
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