Child abuse – sexual : Symptoms & Signs, Diagnosis & Tests

Symptoms & Signs

Symptoms of sexual abuse in chlildren are similar to those of depression or severe anxiety and nervousness. They can include:

  • Bowel disorders, such as soiling oneself (encopresis)
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa
  • Genital or rectal symptoms, such as pain during a bowel movement or urination, or vaginal itch or discharge
  • Repeated headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Stomach aches (vague complaints)

Children who are abused may:

  • Display disruptive behaviors such as using alcohol and street drugs or engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors
  • Do poorly in school
  • Have excessive fears
  • Withdraw from normal activities

Diagnosis & Tests

If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, the child should be examined as soon as possible by a trained health care professional. Most pediatricians, many family medicine doctors, and most emergency room (ER) doctors have been trained to examine cases involving sexual abuse.

Do not delay a doctor’s exam for any reason. Many signs of injury related to sexual abuse are temporary. The exam should be done within 72 hours of the event or discovery.

A complete physical exam must always be performed, so that the examiner can look for any signs of physical and sexual abuse. The two forms of abuse may exist together.

Affected areas may include the mouth, throat, penis, anus, and vagina, including the hymen. The hymen is a thin piece of tissue covering the opening of the vagina. It can be affected by abuse.

Your doctor may also order blood tests to check for sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis and HIV, and pregnancy in females. These tests can help determine treatment.

Photographs of injuries may help establish what happened. It is extremely important to write down symptoms due to any form of child abuse.

An exam will automatically be scheduled when suspected child sexual abuse is reported to police or child protection agencies. A second exam with an expert abuse examiner should be scheduled after the first exam. A doctor or nurse specialist can be found through child protective services programs anywhere in the United States.


Review Date : 3/14/2009
Reviewed By : Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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