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What Parents Should Know About Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in Children

If your child has stomach issues, it can be challenging to get to the bottom of them. And as a parent, it can be heartbreaking to see them struggle with pain or discomfort. Lots of different conditions can cause stomach problems in children, and one of them is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Marek Lukacik, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Banner Children's, said, “Inflammatory bowel disease is inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.” Children who have IBD may experience:

  • Long-lasting abdominal pain—it could continue for weeks or months
  • Changes in the frequency and consistency of bowel movements
  • Diarrhea, which can lead them to worry that they might not make it to the bathroom in time, so they might want to stay home from school or avoid spending time with their friends
  • Blood and mucus in the stool

What are the types of IBD?

Dr. Lukacik said there are two common types of IBD—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—and both types can occur in children as well as adults.

Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, and it’s most often diagnosed in adolescents and adults. Along with gastrointestinal symptoms, children with Crohn’s disease may feel fatigued, lose weight and become malnourished.

Ulcerative colitis affects the colon and rectum, causing sores (ulcers) in the digestive tract. It can occur at any age, even in younger kids.

“Sometimes very young children are affected with inflammatory bowel disease, probably because of genetic predisposition,” Dr. Lukacik said. “We have had children diagnosed as young as 2 years old.”

What causes IBD in children?

It’s not entirely clear what causes IBD, but experts believe that these three factors may play a role:

  • Genetics - children with IBD may also have a parent with the condition.
  • The immune system. These diseases are considered a type of autoimmune disease, where an overactive immune system causes the intestine to become inflamed. 
  • Environmental factors such as infection.

Can you prevent IBD?

“We don’t really know what triggers inflammatory bowel disease,” Dr. Lukacik said. “So, we can’t prevent it.” But you can take steps to help your child reduce their risk. Encourage them to:

  • Eat a balanced diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, that’s rich in healthy fats and fruits and vegetables and that limit processed foods
  • Get enough sleep
  • Try to reduce stress
  • Only take antibiotics when necessary, since antibiotics can destroy the healthy bacteria in the gut

How is IBD diagnosed in children?

If your child has symptoms of IBD, your doctor will likely start with a physical examination and lab testing to see if there is blood or mucus in the stool. To make an accurate diagnosis, your child will also need an endoscopy and colonoscopy to obtain tissue samples. Your doctor may request other imaging studies such as MRI as well.

How is IBD treated?

Children with IBD need medication to help suppress the immune system and keep it from attacking the intestine. Some medications can be taken by mouth and others are injected. Steroids are also an option. “But using steroids long-term can lead to stunted growth. So, the goal is to use them sparingly, or not at all if possible,” Dr. Lukacik said. Surgery can also help, especially with ulcerative colitis.

IBD is not a common childhood ailment. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation can be a good resource for parents who are looking for more information.

The bottom line

Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can strike children as well as adults. Talk to your doctor about a diagnosis if your child has stomach pain, bowel problems or chronic diarrhea. If you need to connect with a health care provider who can help evaluate your child’s symptoms, reach out to Banner Health.

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