Page header image

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder in which your large intestine does not always work normally. The large intestine is also called the colon or large bowel. Although IBS can cause much distress, it does not damage your intestines and does not lead to life-threatening illness.

IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which cause swelling, redness, sores, or holes in the wall of the intestine.

Your child may have flare-ups of symptoms throughout his or her life. Although a cure hasn't been found yet, the disorder can usually be controlled.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of IBS is not known. It may be related to changes in the way nerves and muscles work together. For example, the nerves in your child’s intestines may make the muscles squeeze too much when your child eats. This can make food move too fast through his intestines, causing gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. In other cases, the muscles may not squeeze enough, which slows the passage of food and causes cramps and constipation.

Your child may be at greater risk for IBS if someone in your family has the disorder.

Some foods may trigger attacks. Other possible triggers of attacks are hormonal changes, stress, depression, or an illness such as stomach flu.

What are the symptoms?

Although the symptoms of IBS are different from person to person, you may find that your child's symptoms follow a predictable pattern. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cramping and pain in the belly that comes and goes. The pain may be mild or severe. It often starts after eating a meal or when your child is under stress (such as problems at school) and gets better after having a bowel movement.
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or both. Your child may have constipation one week and diarrhea the next. There may be a lot of mucus in your child's bowel movements.

Sometimes children may eat less to avoid the pain. This may cause them to lose weight. Children who often have diarrhea may not want to go to school or be around other children. Children with IBS can become depressed or anxious.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. There is no specific test for IBS. The diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms. Your child may have tests or scans to check for other possible causes of symptoms.

To find foods that may be causing symptoms, your healthcare provider may tell you to record:

  • All the foods that your child eats
  • How much (serving sizes) your child eats of each food
  • The times of day when your child eats
  • Any symptoms your child has after eating a food
  • The time symptoms started and how long they lasted

If your child’s symptoms are not severe, your provider may suggest that you try to find which foods cause symptoms by not letting your child eat certain foods for a while. For example, you might stop eating milk and dairy products or wheat products for a time. Then you can carefully try adding these foods again, one at a time, to see if your child’s symptoms come back. Ask your provider which foods your child should avoid at first.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for IBS. However, controlling the diet and managing stress usually helps relieve the symptoms. Some medicines may also help.

  • Diet

    Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietitian to learn what your child needs in a healthy diet. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about whether your child should eat more or less high-fiber food. Your child can try eating smaller meals more often each day rather than just 2 or 3 larger meals. Your child should avoid foods that cause gas, such as carbonated drinks, cabbage, and beans. Other foods that may cause symptoms include:

    • Fatty foods, such as French fries or bacon
    • Milk products, such as cheese or ice cream
    • Chocolate
    • Caffeine (found in coffee, energy drinks, and some sodas)
  • Stress

    Help your child identify things that cause stress and suggest ways to help control them. Relaxation or biofeedback techniques may help your child manage stress. Talk with your child's teacher about ways the school can help.

  • Medicines

    Examples of medicines your provider may prescribe are:

    • Bulk-forming agents, such as bran or methylcellulose
    • Antispasmodic drugs to slow the amount of muscle squeezing in the intestines and help with diarrhea and pain
    • Antidepressants, which can help control chronic pain
    • Medicines to help with constipation or diarrhea

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when he can return to his normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks.
  • Your child should stay fit with the right kind of exercise. Exercise helps keep bowel movements regular. It may also help lessen depression and stress.
  • Make sure your child drinks enough liquids to keep his urine light yellow in color.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if your child has new or worsening symptoms.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-03-13
Last reviewed: 2014-04-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
Page footer image