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Rickets is a preventable bone disease that causes soft bones. Rickets only occurs when children are growing - if a child has softer bones, the bones can bend and become an abnormal shape.
Children with rickets may have:
Infants and children with rickets are often grumpy and irritable because their bones are sore. Sometimes babies with rickets can have symptoms of very low calcium levels, such as muscle cramps or seizures. Seizures from low calcium mostly happen in babies who are less than one year old.
Rickets is not common. Nearly all cases of rickets in Australia occur in infants and children who have migrated to Australia, or whose parents migrated to Australia. Rickets is more common when children are growing quickly. It mostly occurs in infants and young children, but it can also occur in teenagers. The risk factors for rickets are the same as the risk factors for low vitamin D. Rickets is a disease of childhood (the term 'children' is used to refer to infants, children and adolescents).
Not all children with low vitamin D get rickets. Rickets is more likely in babies and children who also have low dairy intake, and in babies that breastfeed for a long time without starting solid foods at the normal age (around four to six months).
Rickets is usually caused by low vitamin D, especially if children also have low calcium or low phosphate levels. Calcium and phosphate are minerals that are mostly found in milk and dairy foods. Sometimes kidney problems cause rickets by affecting how the body handles vitamin D, calcium and phosphate.
Rickets can be prevented by:
Spending some time in the sunshine every day and including foods with vitamin D and calcium in your child's diet helps prevent rickets. However, foods only provide a small amount (10-25 per cent) of daily vitamin D needs for most people in Australia. If your child has fair skin, about 20 minutes of sunshine either early in the morning or late in the afternoon is enough for them to get plenty of vitamin D. If your child has darker skin, they will need more time in the sun as their skin does not absorb the sunlight as quickly. It is still important for people with fair to olive skin to use sunscreen and follow skin cancer prevention advice.
Developed by the RCH Departments of General Medicine, Dietetics, and Gastroenterology. First published in Feb 2007. Updated January 2014.