Common Paediatric Gastrointestinal Disorders

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As a parent, you may often hear your child say "My tummy hurts". However, if your child complains about stomach problems on a regular basis, it may be a sign of a serious digestive disorder. If your child experiences these symptoms frequently, it is recommended to visit a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. This will help you understand how to alleviate your child's discomfort. Below are some common severe digestive disorders seen in children.


Most Common Paediatric Gastrointestinal Disorders (GI) illnesses

Although these conditions have different causes, they share many common symptoms such as nausea, stomach ache, diarrhoea, vomiting, and dehydration. Here are some of the most prevalent paediatric gastrointestinal illnesses:



Gastroenteritis is a common gastrointestinal disorder in children caused by a viral or bacterial infection. The disorder can cause various symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and fever. Dehydration can also occur due to fluid loss from persistent vomiting and diarrhoea.

The virus or bacteria responsible for gastroenteritis spreads through contaminated food or water or through contact with an infected person. Children who attend daycare or school are at a higher risk of contracting the illness since they are near other children.


Inflammatory Bowel Disease 

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition that involves ongoing inflammation in the digestive tract or parts of it. This condition can cause a range of symptoms in children, including abdominal pain, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue. Some children may also experience joint pain, skin rashes, and eye inflammation.

There are two main types of IBD - Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. While the exact cause of IBD is not yet fully understood, medical experts believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors can play a role. Children with a family history of IBD are at a higher risk of developing the disease. Other factors that can increase the risk of developing IBD include consuming a diet high in fat and sugar, exposure to specific viruses or bacteria, and living in urban areas.


Irritable Bowel Syndrome 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system. The most common clinical symptoms of IBS in children are abdominal pain, distension, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, fatigue, and a feeling of incomplete bowel movements. Although the exact cause of paediatric IBS is unknown, researchers believe that genetics, diet, and stress can contribute to it. Children with a family history of IBS or other digestive conditions are at a higher risk of developing the syndrome.


Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a type of autoimmune disorder which is caused by an immune reaction to the protein gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. When a child with Celiac disease eats gluten, it can cause their immune system to attack the lining of their small intestine which can lead to damage and malabsorption of nutrients. Common symptoms of paediatric Celiac disease include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, fatigue, and delayed growth and development. While the exact cause of Celiac disease is still unknown, it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors that can contribute to the development of the disease. A family history of Celiac disease or other autoimmune disorders can also increase the likelihood of a child developing the disease


Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease 

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition that occurs when stomach acid and contents flow back into the oesophagus, causing irritation and inflammation. Children with GERD typically experience symptoms like heartburn (a burning sensation in the chest or throat), regurgitation (a sour taste in the mouth), and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing foods or liquids). The exact cause of GERD is not fully understood, but it is believed to be caused by a weak lower oesophageal sphincter, a hiatal hernia, and certain medications.


Crohn’s Disease

Crohn's disease is a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that can affect any part of the digestive tract. The exact cause of this disease is still unknown, but healthcare professionals believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors are responsible for it. Crohn's disease can affect children of any age, and the symptoms can vary depending on the severity and location of inflammation in the digestive tract. Some common symptoms that children with Crohn's disease experience include persistent diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss, rectal bleeding, fever, fatigue, and reduced appetite. In some cases, Crohn's disease can lead to complications such as malnutrition, growth delays, and abscesses or fistulas in the digestive tract.


What Causes GI Disorders in Children? 

Various bacterial, viral, and parasitic pathogens can cause GI disorders in children. The following are some examples of such pathogens:


Bacterial Pathogens

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a common pathogen that can cause diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and fever. It is spread through contaminated food or water. Salmonella can also cause similar symptoms and is transmitted through contaminated food or water. Campylobacter is another pathogen that can cause GI issues in children and is often spread through contaminated poultry products.


Viral Pathogens

Rotavirus is a common cause of paediatric GI disorders. It can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, and fever and is spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. Norovirus is another virus that can lead to GI illness and is transmitted through contaminated water or food or contact with infected individuals.


Parasitic Pathogens

Parasitic pathogens such as Giardia can also result in gastrointestinal illnesses in children. Giardia is spread through contaminated food or water or contact with an infected person. Infections can lead to diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and nausea. Cryptosporidium causes similar symptoms and is spread in the same ways.


Limitations of Traditional Diagnostic Methods for Pediatric GI Conditions

Diagnosing paediatric gastrointestinal disorders using traditional stool testing methods presents several challenges. One of the major challenges is collecting an adequate stool sample from children, as it can be difficult due to their fear or discomfort, which may result in compromised samples and inaccurate test results. Furthermore, traditional testing methods may lack sensitivity to detect some rare paediatric gastrointestinal disorders. As a result, specialised tests such as PCR testing may be necessary. 

In some cases, more comprehensive diagnostic procedures such as endoscopy or colonoscopy may also be required for chronic conditions. While traditional stool testing can be a helpful tool for diagnosing paediatric GI diseases, it’s important to note its limitations and consider other testing methods when necessary.


The Importance of Diagnosing Pediatric GI Disorders 

Identifying the root cause of a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder is crucial for healthcare providers to determine the most effective treatment approach, which can significantly improve a child's quality of life. A misidentified GI disorder can lead to misdiagnosis and potentially worsen the child's condition. Some GI disorders can have serious complications if left untreated or improperly managed. For instance, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can cause severe inflammation and damage to the digestive tract, resulting in malnutrition, growth problems, and even life-threatening complications. Furthermore, some GI illnesses may have underlying genetic causes that require specialised treatment and management. For example, children with cystic fibrosis may need enzyme replacement therapy, nutritional supplementation, and other specialised treatments to manage their GI manifestations.

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