Digestive Disorders in Children

Celiac disease, lactose intolerance and gastroenteritis are some of the most important diseases of the digestive system. Are you familiar with them? Find out more about them!
Digestive Disorders in Children

Last update: 07 September, 2021

As much as we’d like to see children healthy all the time, this is a bit difficult. There are many digestive disorders in children and, in the vast majority of cases, the symptomatology is more or less the same.

That’s why the diagnosis can be difficult in some cases, so going to a specialist early is the best way to avoid unpleasant situation in the future. For this reason, we’ll explain below some of the most frequent conditions we can encounter in hospitals. Keep reading!

Are digestive disorders common in children?

In both adults and children, digestive disorders are quite common. Think of the number of organs we’re talking about: Mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, anus… And that’s not counting the associated glands! This includes, for example, the liver and the pancreas.

It’s logical, then, to think that any alteration in these organs is a digestive disorder. The physician in charge of diagnosing and treating these diseases is a gastroenterologist, or GI doctor, and in cases where surgical resolution is required, general surgeons are the ones trained to perform it.

Girl with gastroenteritis, one of the most common digestive tract diseases.

All these conditions have various symptoms, including abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Without going any further, an estimated 400,000 cases of diarrhea occur each year in children in Spain alone.

Some of the digestive disorders in children

Most of the conditions we’ll mention below correspond to medical diseases, while only one —appendicitis— has a surgical resolution. Keep reading on to find out more!

1. Gastroenteritis, one of the most common digestive disorders

As its name indicates, this illness corresponds to the inflammation of the stomach and part of the small intestine. It usually occurs due to viral infections or food poisoning and, from a clinical point of view, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting may appear.

Fortunately, it’s usually a self-limiting condition. This means that it tends to resolve itself spontaneously within a few days. However, treatment is still necessary: It’s important to ensure constant hydration and nutrients in order to avoid complications.

2. Appendicitis

Appendicitis is one of the most common diseases on this list! It’s the surgical disease of the digestive system par excellence. It’s the progressive inflammation of the vermiform appendix. This is located in the cecum (the final portion of the small intestine), very close to the beginning of the ascending colon.

The symptoms that children with appendicitis may have —as well as adults— are abdominal pain in the lower right part of the abdomen (known as right iliac fossa), fever, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.

Its resolution is a rapid surgical intervention. The longer it takes to remove the appendix, the greater the probability of complications, such as tissue perforation and the onset of peritonitis.

3. Celiac disease

Also known as coeliac disease, it’s a chronic autoimmune condition characterized by intolerance to gluten. This protein is found in widely used foods such as wheat, barley, and rye, and even in small amounts can cause severe inflammatory reactions to the digestive tract.

Over time, especially during the period of childhood when there’s no precise diagnosis, the deterioration of the most superficial layer of the intestine can lead to the onset of the malabsorption syndrome.

This causes nonspecific gastrointestinal disturbances such as pain and diarrhea, but more importantly, adequate nutrient absorption is compromised. In children, this greatly hinders growth.

4. Lactose intolerance

According to a publication of the Spanish Foundation of the Digestive System (FEAD), this condition has an estimated prevalence of 20-40 % in this country, which makes it quite an important condition. It occurs due to a low production of enzymes for lactose processing.

This nutrient is a carbohydrate abundantly present in foods such as dairy products, including milk. When not processed properly, it can cause numerous symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating, in addition to diarrhea.

Child with diarrhea due to lactose intolerance.

Are these conditions treatable?

Yes, fortunately, the conditions we’ve mentioned above do have a treatment. Some are only to prevent the development of complications, such as hydration in the case of viral gastroenteritis. Others are completely curative, as in the case of appendectomies.

In the case of specific intolerances, such as celiac disease and lactose intolerance, the only solution is to make progressive changes to the diet in order to eliminate potentially harmful foods. Unfortunately, there are still no curative treatments for these conditions.

A very diverse group of digestive disorders!

We’ve presented you with a small selection, however, there are many, many more in existence. Intestinal obstruction, pancreatitis, and Hirschsprung’s disease are just some of them.

In some cases, they can be diagnosed with routine visits to the pediatrician. However, it’s advisable to go to the doctor as soon as possible in case any of the above symptoms are present. Finally, in specific cases, you should consult a pediatric gastroenterologist or a pediatric surgeon.

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  • Polanco I, et al. Enfermedad celíaca. Protocolos diagnóstico-terapéuticos de Gastroenterología, Hepatología y Nutrición Pediátrica SEGHNP-AEP.