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Gastrointestinal Bleeding in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 6, 2023.

What do I need to know about gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding?

GI bleeding may occur in any part of your child's digestive tract. This includes his or her esophagus, stomach, intestines, rectum, or anus. Bleeding may be mild to severe. Your child's bleeding may begin suddenly or start slowly and last for a longer period of time. Bleeding that lasts for a longer period of time is called chronic GI bleeding.

What causes GI bleeding?

The cause of your child's bleeding may not be known. The following are common causes of GI bleeding:

  • Inflammation, ulcers, or infection in your child's digestive tract
  • A condition that causes a blockage in your child's intestines, such as intussusception or Hirschsprung disease
  • Tears in the lining of your child's esophagus or anus
  • Swollen blood vessels in the digestive tract that break open and bleed
  • Crohn disease, colitis, or diverticulosis

What are the signs and symptoms of GI bleeding?

Symptoms depend on where the bleeding is, what is causing it, and how much blood your child lost:

  • Blood in your child's vomit, or vomit that looks like coffee grounds
  • Dark or bright red blood in your child's bowel movements
  • Bleeding from your child's rectum
  • Cramping or pain in your child's abdomen
  • Fatigue, weakness, or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale skin or gums, and sweaty or clammy skin
  • Faster heartbeat than usual
  • Urinating less than usual or not at all
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

How is GI bleeding diagnosed?

Your child may need treatment and monitoring in the hospital. Tell the healthcare provider if your child takes blood thinner medicine. Your child may need medicine to reverse the effects of blood thinner medicine. Your child may need any of the following to find the cause of GI bleeding:

  • Blood tests may be done to measure your child's blood cell levels. This information may tell healthcare providers how much blood your child lost. Blood tests also check for infection and give information about your child's overall health.
  • A sample of your child's bowel movement can be tested for blood or infection.
  • X-ray or CT pictures may show bleeding or problems in your child's digestive tract. Contrast liquid may be given to help your child's digestive system show up better in pictures. Tell a healthcare provider if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • An endoscopy is a procedure to find the cause of bleeding in your child's esophagus, stomach, or small intestine. A capsule endoscopy may be done as an outpatient procedure. Ask your child's healthcare provider for more information about a capsule endoscopy.
  • A colonoscopy is a procedure to find the cause of bleeding in your child's intestines or rectum.

How is GI bleeding treated?

Your child's GI bleeding may get better without treatment. If bleeding is severe or causes symptoms, your child may need any of the following:

  • Treatment during endoscopy or colonoscopy may be done. Medicine may be injected into your child's esophagus, stomach, or intestines to stop bleeding. Heat or an electrical current may be applied to stop bleeding. Other procedures, such as banding, may also be used. Banding uses a plastic band to cut off the blood supply to a blood vessel. This stops the bleeding in your child's digestive tract.
  • Surgery may be needed to find and stop GI bleeding.

What can I do to prevent GI bleeding in my child?

  • Manage your child's GI conditions as directed. Examples of GI conditions include gastroesophageal reflux, peptic ulcer disease, and ulcerative colitis. Give your child all medicines for these conditions as directed.
  • Do not give your child NSAIDs. NSAIDs can cause GI bleeding.
  • Do not let your older child smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can increase your child's risk for stomach ulcers. Ask your child's healthcare provider for information if your child currently smokes and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your child's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • Your child has shortness of breath or trouble breathing.
  • Your child faints or loses consciousness.
  • Your child has chest pain.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child feels dizzy or is too weak to stand.
  • Your child's heart is beating faster than usual.
  • Your child vomits blood, or his or her vomit looks like coffee grounds.
  • Your child has blood in his or her bowel movement.
  • Your child has abdominal pain or swelling.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has a bowel movement that is tarry or black.
  • Your child has nausea or is vomiting.
  • Your child has heartburn.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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