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Approach to upper gastrointestinal bleeding in children

Xavier Villa, MD
Section Editors
William J Klish, MD
Stephen J Teach, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


Upper gastrointestinal (UGI) bleeding (arising proximal to the ligament of Treitz in the distal duodenum) commonly presents with hematemesis (vomiting of blood or coffee ground-like material) and/or melena (black, tarry stools). In comparison, hematochezia (bright red or maroon-colored blood or fresh clots per rectum) is usually a sign of a lower gastrointestinal (LGI) source (defined as distal to the ligament of Treitz).

The initial approach to a child with suspected UGI bleeding is discussed in this topic review. The approach to lower GI bleeding in children, or to UGI bleeding in adults, is reviewed separately. (See "Lower gastrointestinal bleeding in children: Causes and diagnostic approach" and "Approach to acute upper gastrointestinal bleeding in adults".)


The incidence of UGI bleeding is not well established in children. An UGI source represents as much as 20 percent of all episodes of gastrointestinal bleeding in children [1].

The most detailed studies have been in the critical care setting [2-4]. In one of the largest prospective studies, UGI bleeding (defined as hematemesis or any amount of blood from the nasogastric tube) was observed in 63 of 984 (6.4 percent) pediatric ICU admissions [3]. Independent risk factors for bleeding included a high Pediatric Risk Mortality score, coagulopathy, pneumonia, and multiple trauma. Higher rates of bleeding (up to 25 percent) were observed in two other series of critically ill pediatric patients who were not receiving prophylactic therapy to prevent UGI bleeding [2,4].


The most common causes of UGI bleeding in children vary depending upon age and the geographic setting. In Western countries, the most common causes are gastric and duodenal ulcers, esophagitis, gastritis, and varices, whereas in India and some other parts of the world, variceal bleeding predominates [5-9]. These observations may reflect regional differences in indications for endoscopy, in addition to differences in predisposing conditions. Conditions associated with structural abnormalities of blood vessels (such as hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) and congenital or acquired coagulopathies can produce bleeding at any time of life [10].


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Literature review current through: Apr 2015. | This topic last updated: Apr 8, 2013.
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