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Child Sexual Abuse in Emergency Medicine

  • Author: Ann S Botash, MD; Chief Editor: Kirsten A Bechtel, MD  more...
Updated: Nov 12, 2015


Child sexual abuse affects more than 100,000 children a year. Many of these children present to the emergency department (ED). The following article outlines triage determinants for examinations, examination techniques, and interpretations of genital findings of sexual abuse.



Child sexual abuse has been defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as the engaging of a child in sexual activities that the child cannot comprehend, for which the child is developmentally unprepared and cannot give informed consent, and violate the social taboos of society.[1] In general, children cannot consent to any sexual activity, but the legal age of consent may vary by state.

Sexual activities involving a child may include activities intended for sexual stimulation, such as those involved in contact sexual abuse (eg, touching the child's genitalia or the child touching an adult's genitalia), penetrating injury (eg, penile, digital, and object insertion into the vagina, mouth, or anus), and nonpenetrating injury (eg, fondling, sexual kissing).

Noncontact sexual abuse, which may include exhibitionism, voyeurism, and the involvement of a child in verbal sexual propositions or the making of pornography, often occurs.

Physical findings of sexual abuse are often not present. The most important determinant for abuse is the child's (or a witness's) account of the incident. Physical indicators may be present, such as bruises to the skin (eg, on the arms and legs from pinch marks or force), abrasions to wrists and ankles (eg, from tethering), bruises to the genital area and mucosa, oral palatal bruises and/or petechiae, and rectal abnormalities. Hymenal abnormalities may be present from chronic abuse or acute injury. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) may be present in sexually abused children and teenagers.




United States

In 2005, 83,850 children in the United States reported to Child Protective Services, were determined to be suspected victims of child sexual abuse. The actual number is likely to be higher because these numbers reflect only children whose cases are investigated by Child Protective Services.[2]


Although perforation of the vagina or viscera could result in injury and death, death resulting from sexual abuse is unusual.

Most of the morbidity associated with sexual abuse is a result of emotional and psychological trauma.

Reactions to sexual abuse can include posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, anger, impaired sense of self, dissociative phenomena, suicidal behavior, sexually reactive behaviors that are beyond the scope of normative child sexual development, and indiscriminate sexual behavior.

STDs may result in further morbidity. However, the prevalence of STDs in sexually abused children varies with geographic location and with the child's age. Most STD prevalence rates in prepubertal children tend to be below 4%; in adolescents, the prevalence rate is approximately 14%.


It is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have experienced an episode of sexual abuse while younger than 18 years. The numbers of boys affected may be falsely low because of reporting techniques.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Ann S Botash, MD Director, Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation Program, Professor and Vice Chair for Educational Affairs, Department of Pediatrics, State University of New York Upstate Medical University

Ann S Botash, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Academic Pediatric Association, American Pediatric Society, Society for Pediatric Research, Ray E Helfer Society, American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center; Chairman, Pediatric Institutional Review Board, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, Ohio

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; Co-Director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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