Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Children

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Little boy at medical checkup getting abdomen examined

Like IBS in adults, irritable bowel syndrome in children is a digestive disorder that causes uncomfortable or painful abdominal and bowel symptoms. While IBS isn’t a disease and it doesn’t damage the intestines, it often is a long-term, or chronic, condition.

The pain, and often embarrassment, of IBS may negatively affect a child’s quality of life and disrupt normal activities. Children may be embarrassed by excessive burping or gas and want to avoid school and friends. The cause of IBS isn’t fully understood, but after ruling out other conditions, treating irritable bowel syndrome in children can help return kids to their normal life.

Symptoms of IBS in Children

Irritable bowel syndrome in a child can cause many kinds of abdominal and bowel symptoms. These symptoms are uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, and may be embarrassing for a child to discuss with a doctor. Not all children will experience all the symptoms, but it’s important to share all symptoms your child is experiencing with his or her pediatrician. Chronic IBS symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both
  • Bloating and gas
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Feeling an urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Not feeling “done” after a bowel movement

Diagnosing IBS in Children

Diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome in children involves first ruling out other conditions or diseases that could cause similar abdominal and bowel symptoms. During a visit with your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric gastroenterologist, the doctor will ask for details about your child’s symptoms and medical history, including family history of IBS or other conditions. Be sure to tell the doctor about any other symptoms, such as nighttime pain, weight loss, rectal bleeding, fever, or arthritis.

To help rule out other conditions, the doctor may order lab tests including a complete blood count, stool and urine samples, and an abdominal X-ray or ultrasound. The doctor will evaluate your child’s diet, and may recommend trying a dairy-free diet and removing some sweeteners from your child’s diet. Sweeteners, such as the artificial sweetener sorbitol and the natural sugar fructose, may contribute to diarrhea. Lack of enough fiber in the diet can contribute to constipation.

IBS Treatment for Children

There’s no cure for IBS, but treatment can help reduce symptoms and relieve discomfort. If the doctor diagnoses your child with IBS, the doctor will likely recommend non-medicinal treatments focused on diet and stress management.

Removing problematic foods from your child’s diet and making sure your child gets plenty of fiber are good places to start. Reducing or removing high fat foods, dairy, caffeine, artificially sweetened drinks, and foods that increase gas may help relieve IBS symptoms. Eating smaller meals may also help.

Adding more fiber to your child’s diet can help with constipation, but it’s important to be careful to not overdo fiber in your child’s diet. Too much fiber can cause gas and diarrhea, which can result in dehydration. To estimate a healthy amount of fiber, add your child’s age plus 5 to determine how many grams of fiber your child should have daily. Healthy sources of fiber include fruits, veggies and whole grains. Make sure your child has plenty of fluids every day.

Stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms, so stress management is important. Distraction or relaxation techniques work for some children. In other cases, a therapist can help your child learn to better manage their stress and pain.

If changes in diet and managing stress is not controlling symptoms, your child’s pediatrician may prescribe medications, such as acid reducers or antispasmodic medication. (IBS is also sometimes called spastic colon or spastic bowel.) Consult with the doctor before using laxatives to relieve your child’s constipation; laxatives must be used with extreme care with children.

Careful management of IBS symptoms can improve quality of life for your child by reducing both pain and embarrassment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 11
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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