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Is Colon Cleansing Safe for Children?

author image Michael O'Leary
Michael O’Leary has been covering medical research and health care since 1988. He served as senior science writer at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and as managing editor for the treatment decision tools on the American Cancer Society site. O'Leary is a certified medical writer and has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Washington.
Is Colon Cleansing Safe for Children?
Enemas are one method of colon cleansing. Photo Credit enema image by apeschi from <a href='http://www.fotolia.com'>Fotolia.com</a>

Colon cleansing is the practice of removing waste matter from the colon. According to the Colonic Cleansing Organization, there are two ways to do this. Enemas force fluid into the colon through the anus to flush the waste from the colon. Over-the-counter and prescription medications including laxatives are ingested by mouth to induce bowel movements to expel the waste. There is considerable controversy about the risks and benefits of colon cleansing in children.


The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders says the colon, or large intestine, is divided into sections. The ascending colon--the portion connected to the small intestine and appendix--lies vertically on the right side of the torso. The middle portion, called the traverse colon, lies horizontally just below the stomach. The descending colon lies on the left side of the torso and empties into the sigmoid colon and rectum.


The colon is part of the digestive system that's responsible for most of the absorption of water from indigestible food. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, in children with normal digestive function, the colon passes the water and nutrients from partly digested food into the bloodstream and pushes the remaining waste into the sigmoid colon and rectum, where it is collected and formed into stool. When full, the rectum forces the stool out of the body through the anus.


Advocates of cleansing the colon to prevent disease in children claim that waste matter, particularly from unhealthy fast-food diets, can collect and build up in the colon with toxic effects that cause disease. However, a review of scientific literature by a group of internationally recognized gastroenterologists published in 2005 found no scientific evidence that stool remaining in the colon for a long time is the cause of other diseases. That said, Dr. Michael Picco, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, notes that there is very little scientific evidence either supporting or disproving the benefit claims for colon cleansing either in children or adults. Most pediatricians say that a normally functioning colon regulates the transit time of waste in the colon to maintain the proper balance of natural chemicals and beneficial bacteria, and there is no need for routine colon cleansing.

Reasons for Colon Cleansing in Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics says the medical reasons for cleansing the colon in children include preparation for diagnostic testing and treatment of serious childhood digestive disorders. Childhood digestive diseases can occur from structural problems such as short bowel syndrome or complicated gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Other childhood digestive system problems can stem from nutritional problems, feeding disorders or food allergies. Occasional constipation is not treated with colon cleansing; instead, pediatricians recommend avoiding cow's milk, and giving water or prune juice, fruits and high-fiber foods. Pediatricians may prescribe a mild laxative or enema in severe cases of constipation, but you should never do this without consulting a doctor.


According to MayoClinic.com, colon cleansing can increase the risk of dehydration, and certain laxatives containing sodium phosphate can cause a dangerous rise in electrolytes in people with kidney disease or heart problems. Other risks include infections and the potential of perforating the rectum and causing organ damage. The American Academy of Pediatrics says these risks are higher in children because of smaller body size, and it cautions that you should never give your child a laxative or enema without consulting a doctor. Because the risks of harm, although small, outweigh the unproven disease prevention benefits of colon cleansing in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine colon cleansing for children.

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