Diarrhea is an increase in the looseness (usually runny or watery) and frequency of bowel movements per day. Diarrhea that lasts less than one week is considered to be acute diarrhea, while diarrhea lasting longer than four weeks is called chronic diarrhea. Most acute cases are caused by gastrointestinal (GI) infections and clear up within a few days. Children under age three have an average of 1–3 episodes of acute diarrhea per year.
Causes of Acute and Chronic Diarrhea
Acute diarrhea can be caused by infections, food poisoning, allergic reaction to food, and medications such as antibiotics. Acute diarrhea usually stops once the child’s body clears the infection or toxin. Most children with acute diarrhea do not need treatment with medication. If the diarrhea is lasting longer than one or two weeks, then further testing may be needed.
Chronic diarrhea can be caused by inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, lactose intolerance, and leakage of stool around hard stool stuck in the rectum. The treatment of your child’s diarrhea depends on the cause.
Diarrhea can have many different causes, with the most predominant being viruses and bacteria. Because these are highly contagious, children often become infected through person-to-person contact, such as at day-care facilities, or by touching contaminated surfaces and then putting their fingers in their mouths. Diarrhea is the body’s way of eliminating these germs from the digestive tract.
If a virus, bacterial infection, or parasite brings on diarrhea, your child may experience other symptoms including:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Diarrhea caused by infection typically lasts a few days and is not a serious condition as long as the child stays hydrated.
How to Treat It
Treatment for diarrhea in children can usually be done at home with rest and plenty of fluids. One of the biggest concerns when a child has diarrhea is dehydration. A child with a mild case of diarrhea can typically eat and drink normally. A child with moderate to severe diarrhea loses a significant amount of fluids quickly, and therefore needs to take in extra fluids to replenish the loss. If a child is less than one year old and is experiencing diarrhea, you should take dehydration prevention measures immediately. Some dehydration prevention measures include increasing the frequency of breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, using cereal or strained bananas if your child has had them before, or using an oral rehydration solution (ORS—these generally have names ending in “-lyte” and can be found in most drugstores or grocery stores). Liquids such as water, soda, and fruit juice so not have the nutrients and minerals to rehydrate quickly, and are not recommended.
Other treatments for diarrhea may include:
- Antibiotics (to prevent spread of infection, especially in younger children)
- Antiparasitic medicines
- IV fluids (given at a hospital if diarrhea is severe and dehydration is an immediate concern)
When to Call Your Doctor
If your child has diarrhea and is under six months of age, you should consult your doctor right away. Always monitor your child for symptoms of dehydration and call your doctor if your child:
- Has severe or prolonged diarrhea
- Has fever over 102° (or 100.4° if under six months)
- Has blood or mucus in the stool
- Vomits repeatedly or vomits bloody green or yellow fluids
- Refuses liquids
- Exhibits signs of dehydration
- Has severe stomach pain