Irritable Bowel Syndrome
What is IBS in children?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a long-term (chronic) disorder that affects the
large intestine or colon. IBS causes painful belly (abdominal) and bowel symptoms.
With IBS, the colon appears normal. But it doesn't work the way it should.
What causes IBS?
The exact physical cause of IBS is not known. A child with IBS may have a colon that
is more sensitive than normal. This means the colon has a strong reaction to things
that should not normally affect it.
Children may feel IBS symptoms because of:
Problems with how food moves through their digestive system
Extreme sensitivity of the inside of their bowel to stretching and motion
Too much bacteria growing in their bowel
All of these things can cause IBS symptoms. You should stress to your child that his
or her belly pain is real and not imaginary.
Who is at risk for IBS?
Children are most at risk for IBS if one or both parents have the disorder. Teens
are more at risk than younger children. IBS affects boys and girls equally.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Each child's symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
Belly pain that keeps coming back. Pain that continues for more than 3 months is long-term
A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
Upset stomach (nausea)
Loss of appetite
Swelling (bloating) and gas
Needing to have a bowel movement right away
Feeling that not all of the stool has come out during a bowel movement
Mucus in the stool
How is IBS diagnosed?
Your child's healthcare provider will take a full health history and do a physical
exam. A diagnosis of IBS is made by ruling out other causes of the symptoms.
There are some symptoms that may point to a cause other than IBS. This can help your
child's healthcare provider decide what lab tests and procedures may be needed. These
Fever for no reason
The provider will order lab tests to check for infection and inflammation. These may
Blood tests. These tests are done to check if your child has anemia, an infection, or an illness
caused by inflammation or irritation.
Urine analysis and culture. These help check for urinary tract infections.
Stool sample. This checks for bacteria and parasites that may cause diarrhea.
Stool samples for occult blood. Occult blood cannot be seen. It is only found using a special solution that turns
blue when it comes into contact with blood. If blood is found, there may be inflammation
in the GI (gastrointestinal) tract.
Lactose breath hydrogen test. This test is done to see if your child can't digest lactose (is lactose intolerant).
Lactose is a sugar found in milk and milk products.
Abdominal X-ray. A simple study that gives the provider an idea of how the internal organs look.
Abdominal ultrasound. An imaging test that shows the internal organs as they work. It makes images using
high-frequency sound waves in the internal organs.
EGD (esophagogastroduodenoscopy) or upper endoscopy. A test that uses a small, flexible tube with a light and a camera lens at the end
(endoscope) to check the inside of part of the digestive tract. Tissue samples (biopsy)
from inside the digestive tract may also be taken for testing.
Colonoscopy. A test that uses a long, flexible tube with a light and camera lens at the end (colonoscope)
to check inside the large intestine.
How is IBS treated?
Your child's healthcare provider will create a care plan based on:
Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
How serious your child's case is
How well your child handles certain medicines, treatments, or therapies
If your child's condition is expected to get worse
Your opinion and what you would like to do
There is no cure for IBS. The main goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and help
your child get back to normal daily activities. Treatment may include:
Lactose sugar can cause IBS symptoms. If your child can't digest lactose (is lactose
intolerant), it is best to limit lactose. Talk with your child's healthcare provider
about giving your child the enzyme that digests the sugar (lactase/Lactaid).
High fiber for children is controversial since it could promote gas and bloating.
It is recommended for adults, and it may help children who have constipation.
Adding good bacteria (probiotics)
When your child has a painful episode of IBS, try to help him or her focus on something
fun or pleasant.
In rare cases, specialists may be consulted for pain control. Methods such as biofeedback
and acupuncture may help.
What are the complications of IBS?
A child with IBS often doesn't feel well. And the physical symptoms of IBS can lead
to stress and emotional problems. For example, children with diarrhea may not get
to the bathroom in time. This can make them feel embarrassed. They may then avoid
going to school or playing with friends. This can cause depression and anxiety.
Most children with IBS continue to grow and develop normally. But some children may
eat less to avoid the pain that can go along with digestion. This can lead to weight
Living with IBS
IBS symptoms can affect your child's daily activities. It's important to work with
your child's healthcare provider to manage the disease. You may need a plan to deal
with issues such as diet, school, and emotional or mental health.
It is important to know the triggers that cause your child's symptoms and then avoid
those triggers. Triggers often include:
Keeping a food and symptoms diary may help you to better understand your child's triggers.
Help your child find positive ways to cope. This can help them take part in school
and other activities. Some methods that may be helpful include:
Talk with your child's healthcare provider to find methods and interventions that
may be right for your child.
If your child is having a hard time coping with IBS, talk with your child's healthcare
provider. You might consider having your child see a specialist, such as a:
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Contact your child's healthcare provider if your child has any of the following symptoms:
Call your child's provider right away if your child has been diagnosed with IBS and
develops other symptoms including:
Key points about IBS in children
IBS is a long-term (chronic) disorder that affects the large intestine or colon.
IBS causes painful belly and bowel symptoms.
Try to find the triggers that cause your child's symptoms. Then avoid those triggers.
There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and help your child get
back to normal daily function.
IBS symptoms can affect your child's daily activities. Work with your child's healthcare
provider to manage the disease.
Online Medical Reviewers:
- Albert, Chan, MD
- Hanrahan, John, MD
- Lehrer, Jenifer, MD