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The colon and rectum are the last parts of the body’s digestive system. The colon’s function is to absorb fluids and process waste products before the waste products are eliminated from the body through the rectum.

Like adults, children can experience colorectal problems. These problems may be temporary or chronic. Symptoms may appear shortly after a child is born or develop as a child grows.

Common symptoms of colorectal problems in children may include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss

Things You Need to Know

Intermountain Healthcare provides comprehensive care for children with routine and complex colorectal conditions. These conditions include:

  • Anorectal malformation. Some babies are born with abnormalities that affect their anus or rectum. The urinary tract and reproductive organs might also be affected. These abnormalities can often be fixed with surgery.
  • Fecal incontinence. If your child is having trouble with bowel control, treatments such as laxatives and enemas may help.
  • Hirschsprung’s disease. In this disease, nerves in the intestinal wall don’t develop properly, so food doesn’t move through the digestive system the way it should. Children with this disease can have severe constipation and dangerous bowel blockages. Surgery to remove the affected part of the intestine can correct the problem.
  • Idiopathic constipation. This is constipation without a known cause. Treatment usually begins with removing impacted stool (poop that is stuck in the rectum). Then your child will take laxatives to help them have a daily bowel movement.

When to See a Doctor

Diarrhea and constipation are common in infants and children. In most cases, these conditions get better on their own, but they may also be symptoms of a problem with the colon. Be sure to tell your child’s doctor about any changes in your child’s bowel habits. If you notice blood in your child’s stool, contact your child’s doctor right away. This may be a symptom of a serious medical problem that requires immediate treatment.

To diagnose colorectal problems, your child’s doctor will ask about their medical history and do a physical exam. The doctor will ask you about your child’s bowel habits, such as how often they have a bowel movement (poop). Depending on your child’s symptoms, your doctor may order some tests. These tests may include the following:

  • Blood tests.
  • Stool culture. For this test, a sample of your child’s stool is collected. After a few days, it will be examined to see whether any harmful bacteria are present.
  • Imaging tests such as a computed tomography scan (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound exam.
  • Swallowing study (also called an oropharyngeal [awr-oh-fuh-rin-jee-uhl] motility study). For this test, your child swallows a drink with barium in it. The barium coats the inside of your child’s digestive tract so it shows up clearly on x-ray pictures.
  • Colonoscopy. This is an examination of the colon using a camera mounted on a flexible tube that is inserted through your child’s anus and rectum.

If your child’s doctor suspects a colorectal problem, they will likely refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist [gas-troh-en-tuh-rol-uh-jist]. A pediatric gastroenterologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating digestive disorders in children and adolescents.