Merck Manual

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Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023
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What is intussusception?

The intestine is a hollow tube, like a hose. In intussusception, a part of the intestine suddenly slides inside another part. The sliding blocks your intestine and stops blood flow.

Intussusception usually happens in children between 6 months and 3 years old.

  • In most cases, doctors don't know the cause of intussusception

  • Your child may have belly pain and throwing up that starts suddenly then comes and goes, each time lasting about 15 to 20 minutes, then returns to normal

  • Later, your child's stool may be bloody

  • Doctors use an air enema to find intussusception and also to treat it

  • Some children need surgery

  • Sometimes the intestine returns to normal without treatment

If the intussusception doesn’t return to normal, and blood flow is blocked for more than a few hours, part of the intestine may die, and small holes may develop. The holes let bacteria enter the belly area and can cause a serious infection.

What Is Intussusception?

One part of the intestine slides into another, much like the parts of a collapsible telescope. As a result, the intestine is blocked.

What Is Intussusception?

What causes intussusception?

Doctors don't know what causes intussusception in young children, but it’s the most common cause of intestinal blockage in children ages 6 months to 3 years.

When older children have intussusception, it's usually caused by a problem in the intestine, such as a polyp (small mass) or tumor.

What are the symptoms of intussusception?

Symptoms include:

  • Sudden belly pain in a child who seems otherwise healthy

  • Throwing up

The pain and throwing up last 15 to 20 minutes, go away, and come back. At first the child seems healthy between times of pain. Later symptoms may include:

  • Constant belly pain

  • Acting cranky and sluggish

  • Stool (poop) with blood and mucus—sometimes compared to red currant jelly

  • Fever

If the intestine is damaged, children may get a hole (perforation) in it. Children who have a hole in their intestines:

  • Look sick

  • Have pain when someone touches their belly

How can doctors tell if my child has intussusception?

How do doctors treat intussusception?

If the intussusception has caused a hole in the intestine:

  • Doctors do emergency surgery

If there's no hole, doctors treat intussusception using an air enema.

  • A doctor puts air into your child’s intestine through a small tube put in the child's rear end

  • The air pushes into the intestine and makes it unfold

  • The doctor then takes an x-ray to make sure the intestine is back to normal

  • Your child stays at the hospital overnight

Intussusception can come back in the next day or two after the procedure. If it comes back your child will need surgery to fix it.

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