Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Children

About Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease refers to two chronic (or recurring) conditions called “Crohn’s disease” and “ulcerative colitis,” which cause redness and swelling (inflammation) in parts of the intestinal tract. Like asthma, IBD symptoms in children occur in bouts — periodically flaring up for sometimes weeks or months.

What’s the Difference Between IBS and IBD?

Often confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD is a condition that can cause the intestines to narrow and restrict food from moving through the bowel. IBS is a functional disorder, which means the digestive system looks perfectly normal, but it doesn’t work exactly like it should. IBD and IBS have many similar symptoms, but IBS doesn’t cause blood in the stool (bowel movements or poop) like IBD can.

Crohn’s vs. Ulcerative Colitis in Children

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are both inflammatory bowel diseases that cause inflammation to different parts of the digestive system. Crohn’s can occur anywhere along the intestinal tract, but it’s commonly found in the last segment of the small intestine (ileum) and the large intestine (colon). Ulcerative colitis mostly affects the colon.

Crohn’s impacts the entire thickness of the intestine and can affect more than one section of the intestinal tract. In contrast, ulcerative colitis occurs only within the inner lining of the organ and is found only in one spot.

What Causes IBD in Children?

The exact cause of IBD in children is unknown. However, experts agree that the environment, genetics, and/or diet may have something to do with it. Scientists believe that an overactive immune system may trigger inflammation in response to an offending agent, like a virus or certain foods. Researchers are actively studying IBD to get to the bottom of possible causes, and hopefully help relieve IBD symptoms in children and adults.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to two chronic diseases that cause inflammation of the intestines: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Inflammatory bowel disease is not the same thing as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory disease of the large intestine, or colon. In ulcerative colitis, the inner lining of the intestine becomes swollen and develops sores (ulcers). Ulcerative colitis is often the most severe in the rectal area.

Crohn's disease can involve any part of the digestive tract. It causes inflammation that extends much deeper into the layers of the intestinal wall and generally affects the entire bowel wall.

The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are diarrhea and abdominal pain. Diarrhea can range from mild to severe, requiring as many as 20 or more trips to the bathroom a day. Frequent diarrhea can lead to weight loss, poor growth, dehydration, and malnutrition. In addition, continual loss of small amounts of blood in the stool can lead to anemia.

Students with IBD may:

  • need to use the bathroom frequently throughout the day
  • require seating closest to the bathroom or door
  • need to carry a water bottle to avoid dehydration
  • need to eat frequent small snacks
  • feel tired throughout the day
  • need to go to the school nurse for medication, medical attention, or to change clothes
  • need extra time for class assignments and homework
  • need to miss school or come in late due to flare-ups
  • feel embarrassed about their symptoms

Certain foods can trigger IBD symptoms. It's important for students with IBD to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost through diarrhea. Most students with IBD know what they can and should not eat.

What Teachers Can Do

Students may miss a lot of class time for bathroom breaks or school days due to flare ups. Make sure they have a bathroom or hallway pass to use at will, and allow for extra time for assignments or assign make-up work to be completed at home.

Students with IBD can participate in physical education and other activities, but should be allowed to opt out if they are not feeling well.

Stress can play a part in IBD. Understanding your students' symptoms, diet, and concerns can help.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 05, 2017