IBS In Children And Teens

Written by: Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: September 2021 | Last updated: November 2021

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect people of all different ages and backgrounds. IBS does not only affect adults. Children and teenagers can also have IBS.

Diagnosing IBS in kids

Diagnosing IBS can be challenging in kids. This may make it hard to know the true number affected. Like in adults, IBS is diagnosed based on the types of symptoms present, how long they have been occurring, and what stools look like.

Kids may have a hard time describing symptoms and have different issues than adults. This can make it hard to diagnose IBS from other health conditions.

It is also very common for kids, especially younger kids, to have constipation. This may be due to stress, toilet training, limited diet due to picky eating, and more. It can be challenging to separate IBS from functional constipation, or when the body is not removing waste as it should.

In general, abdominal pain that improves after constipation has cleared is not IBS. But this separation can still be hard to make, especially in younger children.1-3

There are certain "red flag" symptoms that can suggest underlying diagnoses other than IBS. These include:1-3

  • Significant vomiting or weight loss
  • Fever
  • Blood in the stool
  • Arthritis

How common is it for kids to have IBS?

Some estimates suggest that about 5 percent of kids in the United States have IBS. However, the true number may be higher. Teenagers may be more likely to have IBS than younger kids. As many as 15 percent of teenagers may have IBS. The number of kids impacted by IBS has increased in recent decades.1,2,4

There is not much research on IBS in kids. From the information available, young girls and boys can be equally affected. As kids grow into teenagers, it may be more likely for girls to have IBS than boys.

Types of IBS in kids

The 4 main types of IBS in kids are similar to those of adults and depend on the type of stools present. These types include:1,2

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M)
  • IBS unspecified type (IBS-U)

Why do kids get IBS?

It is unclear why kids get IBS, but the theories are similar to why it happens in adults.

Some experts think symptoms may be related to an oversensitive gut. For example, the gut may feel pain in response to normal stool or gas patterns that would not cause pain in others. IBS symptoms may also be related to how the gut moves food or how much bacteria is present in the gut.1-4

Other experts believe IBS symptoms come from the brain down to the gut. Stress, anxiety, or other issues may increase the perception of pain and lead to symptoms. It is also possible that IBS symptoms are due to a combination of factors.1-4

We do know that the chances increase for kids with certain risk factors. These include:1,2

  • Family history of IBS
  • History of digestive tract infections
  • Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or severe stress
  • History of child abuse
  • Past surgeries or procedures involving the digestive tract
  • Allergies or asthma

Treating IBS in kids

Treating IBS in kids can be tricky. There are not many studies on how certain treatments impact kids versus adults. Often, doctors will start with changing the diet and focusing on reducing stress. Methods include:1-4

In some cases, supplements or medicines may be needed.1-4

Fortunately, IBS does not cause lasting damage to a child’s gut. Some kids will even grow out of their IBS. However, IBS can still be challenging for kids to navigate. Managing school, friendships, and activities with IBS can be overwhelming.

Creating a strong healthcare team that creates open lines of communication between the child, parents, and doctors can be helpful for tackling issues as they arise.

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