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What Causes Digestive Problems in Teens?

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

When — & why — teen digestion goes haywire

Anyone can suffer from digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain. But if it's your teen we're talking about here, it adds a layer of difficulty — because really, what teenager wants to talk their parent about their intestines?

Below is everything you (may not have) ever wanted to know about some common digestive problems that could be plaguing your older child — plus their symptoms, causes and treatments.

The embarrassing symptoms of digestive issues

Abdominal problems can manifest in a variety of unpleasant ways at a number of spots along the digestive tract. For starters, let's look at some of the most common abdominal symptoms you (and your teen) should be on the lookout for.

  • Upset stomach
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bowel movement color changes
  • Irritable bowels
  • Itching anus

And if that weren't uncomfortable — and awkward — enough, there are other non-abdominal symptoms that can be attributed to tummy troubles too. These include:

  • Headaches
  • Halitosis
  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain/weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Acne

Keep in mind, though, that simply shoving a bottle of Pepto toward your kid to treat the symptoms won't fix the underlying issue — and some belly troubles require further investigation to determine the root of the problem.

More: 10 Tips for Getting Your Digestive Health Back on Track

The causes of tummy troubles

Digestive symptoms and abdominal pain can spring up due to a wide variety of causes; here are some of the most common.

Food intolerances: An intolerance of a certain food or compound means your kid's body can't handle digesting that ingredient. Lactose intolerance means the culprit is lactose (a sugar found in dairy products); this intolerance can result in nausea, cramps, bloating and diarrhea if dairy is consumed.

Food allergies: While you may be familiar with food allergies that produce hives or itching, these can also affect the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms can include cramping, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Menstrual cycle: As if bleeding once a month weren't bad enough, many girls get the undelightful experience of "period poops" — aka diarrhea. It's all because of these little jerks called prostaglandins, which stimulate the smooth muscle of the uterus so it will contract and expel the lining. If you produce too many prostaglandins, they can sometimes enter the bloodstream and affect the (also lined with smooth muscle) bowels.

Medications: Even common over-the-counter pain meds such as ibuprofen can cause stomach pain.

Stress: A teen's life is often chock-full of stress. Unfortunately, this can adversely affect the gut. Stress-induced belly issues can cause nonspecific pain; even though it doesn't have a physical cause, this kind of pain is nonetheless very real.

Poor eating habits: If your teen's diet isn't all that stellar and they're not drinking enough fluids, fecal matter can build up, and it's not always easy to poop it out. Plus, constipation can cause a host of issues aside from plain-old not pooping: belly pain, hemorrhoids and fissures (small cracks in the anus that can bleed). Another factor can be lack of intestinal flora — the "good" bacteria we need to keep our digestive system running smoothly — the balance of which can be upset by a poor diet, stress or lack of sleep.

Embarrassment: Believe it or not, some teens simply don't want to poop at school because... well, because pooping at school. So they wait until they get home. And all that waiting can lead to constipation and even worse problems, such as impacted stool or even leakage (which is uncommon, thankfully, but is still a possibility).

Malabsorption: Certain conditions, such as celiac disease, can result in malabsorption, which in turn can lead to a whole wheelbarrow full of distressing gastric symptoms. Celiac disease means your child's immune system decides to attack the lining of their stomach and small intestine when gluten is ingested, which damages the villi and leads to malabsorption, pain, poor growth, bloating, constipation, weight loss and more.

More: How You Can Change Picky Kids' Eating Habits in Just 2 Weeks

How to feel better, stat

Fortunately, for many stomach ailments, the prescription is simple: a better diet, more fluids and exercise.

  • Eat a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins and complex carbohydrates
  • Cut back on caffeine, sugary drinks and fast foods
  • Avoid alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoking
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Stay physically active
  • Reduce stress by learning good coping skills
  • Take a probiotic

But also: Schedule a checkup

Lifestyle changes won't always clear stomach issues up, however. Dr. Partha Nandi, physician and author of Ask Dr. Nandi, says there are a few signs to look for that warrant a deeper investigation. "Doctors suggest for parents to trust their instincts," he says. "If it's just a complaint that you can't really figure out… if you are worried, don't hesitate to call your pediatrician. You know your child best, and if you are concerned, then call."

He also says the following situations warrant further investigation by a physician:

  • Severe vomiting and diarrhea that seem to cause dehydration
  • Blood in vomit or diarrhea
  • Ongoing constipation or blood in the stool
  • Overly picking eating (this can be a red flag there is something wrong with the gut)
  • Abdominal pain that interferes with regular life or goes on for longer than expected
Your teen may be referred to a specialist if involuntary weight loss, excessive vomiting, unexplained fever, gastrointestinal bleeding or other severe symptoms are present.

Tummy troubles can be distressing, but with some thoughtful questioning and a doctor visit (if necessary), things can get moving again — and you and your teen can move on to less awkward conversation topics.

When — & why — teen digestion goes haywire
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows
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