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What should parents know about gross bodily functions?


Published October 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

Boogers, belches and farts — they're natural fodder for childhood giggles, but can also provide useful insights into kids' diet and health.

Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at Vermont's Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen, offers a doctor's take on the topic of the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center's exhibit "Grossology: The Impolite Science of the Human Body."

KIDS VT: Why should kids learn about disgusting bodily functions?

LEWIS FIRST: Not only does this represent a moment of inappropriate humor, it's also a great way to educate children and families about how their bodies function in a way that captures their interest.

KVT: OK. Let's talk mucous, or snot.

LF: Every day, the body makes about a quart of this sticky, slimy liquid, coming from the nose and sinuses. This sticky substance helps trap dirt, dust, pollen and germs to prevent them from traveling farther into our breathing passages, inflaming them and making it more difficult to breathe. When dirt and dust stick to the mucous, it dries up in clumps forming what we technically call "nasal debris," or what everybody else refers to as the dreaded "booger." The good news is, when boogers form, that means your nose is working well. But because it's uncomfortable, kids need to learn how to get rid of that debris from their nose.

KVT: Why is nose picking bad?

LF: Because it introduces germs onto their fingers and can cause irritation and bleeding if the debris is scraped away from the surface inside the nose. How many kids really go wash their hands after nose-picking? I wish they would, but they don't. They'd do a lot better learning to put a tissue up there or learning to blow their nose.

KVT: Why do noses run?

LF: When you get a germ in there, a message goes to the brain to increase the production of mucous to block any further chance of those germs getting into your system. Sometimes, your nose runs when it's cold outside to keep the lining of the nose moist, so it doesn't crack and bleed. So, while mucous may be gross, it's a great filtering system.

KVT: Gas can smell bad and hurt. But is it unhealthy?

LF: No! Gas is another great function. When we digest foods, we're not just swallowing solids and liquids, but also air, which contains gases such as oxygen and nitrogen and can build up in your digestive system and form gas bubbles. We get rid of that through burping or through an equally memorable bodily function. As the healthy bacteria in your intestines help break down your food, they release gases that can contain sulfur, ammonia and methane, which gives the not-so-pleasant odor to the passing of gas. When infants feed, they swallow lots of air and this can be uncomfortable for them. That's why we burp babies and when we don't they're likely to pass more gas to release the pressure.

KVT: What foods make kids gassy?

LF: Onions, fried foods, certain vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli. Also, dairy products if children are lactose intolerant. Then there's baked beans. Here's the secret to baked beans: If you soak them in water for a couple hours before you cook them up, the gas escapes from the bean and kids can get all the protein without the gaseous aftershock.

KVT: What's the poop on bowel movements?

LF: Poops come in all shapes, sizes and colors, which often reflects what the child has eaten. Certainly, unless the child has been drinking a lot of juice or punch with red color, or black licorice, red or black colors in the stool are definitely worth calling to your doctor's attention. Red may represent fresh blood, and black, old blood.

KVT: What about using products to stop diarrhea?

LF: Parents should not give their kids medicine to stop either vomiting or diarrhea, because the sooner the body rids itself of whatever is bothering it, the better the child is going to feel.

KVT: What about vomiting?

LF: Like all of these functions, it's a way for the body to get rid of things it doesn't like. It could be an irritant such as spoiled food that can cause food poisoning. The brain receives a signal from the stomach that there's something that doesn't belong, so a message goes back to the stomach to get rid of its contents as quickly as possible.

KVT: When is vomiting problematic?

LF: We worry if it contains blood or causes belly pain. If the vomiting lasts more than 24 hours and the child can't stay hydrated, that's a concern. The best thing you can do for a child who's vomited is rest the child's stomach for a couple of hours — that is, nothing to eat or drink — and then give him or her small amounts of clear liquids or rehydration solutions.

KVT: Should parents ever induce vomiting in kids?

LF: No, because there's a risk of things coming up from the stomach, and, instead of going out the mouth, they can go down the windpipe. That's called aspiration, and it's very dangerous. We don't use ipecac anymore because the amount of the toxin that comes out is a very low percentage compared to what stays down there. Plus, you add the risk of aspiration. If you are concerned call the regional Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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