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Digestive health centre

Signs your child's digestive health needs help

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

There are a number of conditions that can affect a child's digestive health, and while some symptoms might be unmistakable to most parents, a child with a tummy ache or constipation won't always let Mum or Dad know that something is wrong.

It's not always obvious

Vomiting, or being sick, and diarrhoea are common symptoms of an infection of the intestines known as gastroenteritis – sometimes called a "stomach bug". Almost all children in the UK will have a rotavirus infection (a form of gastroenteritis) before their fifth birthday, and most children will get some form of gastroenteritis at least once a year. So most parents already have – or will have – first-hand experience helping their children cope with these symptoms.

However, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation and tummy ache are all digestive symptoms that could be signs of another problem. Other conditions that can cause digestive problems include:

Some of these problems may be related to food. For example, Norma McGough, director of policy, research and campaigns at Coeliac UK, explains: "Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten. It causes damage to the gut and has a range of gut symptoms." The child may also be lethargic and have a lack of appetite.

A child can only be tested for coeliac disease, Ms McGough points out, "once gluten containing foods have been introduced into a child's diet".

At a loss for words

Some children – especially younger ones who may not know how to describe what is wrong – may have tummy aches ( abdominal pain) and not be able to tell their parents, but instead they become sulky without their parents knowing why. They may turn into fussy eaters, picking at their food. A food intolerance or allergy can be the cause of tummy aches, but anxiety can cause tummy aches too.

As many as 1 in 10 children in the UK between the ages of 4 and 14 may have frequent bouts of recurrent abdominal pain (at least three episodes within 3 months).

Dr Nick Read, medical adviser for The IBS Network, says: "It is likely that this represents a form of irritable bowel syndrome and is usually triggered by stress in the home or at school and/or food intolerance."

When it's time for help

With symptoms ranging from a mild tummy upset to severe diarrhoea, it's a good idea to know which signs of a digestive health problem mean you should consult your GP or get emergency help.

Mild cases of an upset tummy can usually be treated at home without the need of medical advice. However, here is some guidance on when to get help if your child has any of the following common symptoms:

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