Diarrhea occurs when there is an
increase in the frequency of bowel movements or bowel movements are more watery
and loose than normal. Diarrhea has many causes.
A child may develop diarrhea from a
change in his or her diet. A baby's or child's digestive tract may not tolerate
large amounts of juice, fruit, or even milk. Diarrhea may be caused by an
increase in the amount of juice or fruit a child drinks or eats. Diarrhea that
is caused by a change in the child's diet is not usually serious.
Diarrhea is often caused by a viral or
bacterial infection, such as
rotavirus, stomach flu (gastroenteritis), or
food poisoning. Diarrhea is the body's way of quickly
clearing any viruses, bacteria, or toxins such as
botulism from the digestive tract. Most cases of
diarrhea are caused by a viral infection and will usually clear up in a few
Diarrhea may also be caused by a parasitic infection, such as
Giardia lamblia. This parasite, as well as other viral
and bacterial infections, may be spread by drinking
untreated water, unpasteurized dairy products, or by
On rare occasions, diarrhea can be a
symptom of a more serious condition, such as:
- A problem in the digestive tract, such as
inflammatory bowel disease or intussusception.
- Diseases that
interfere with the normal digestion of food (malabsorption), such as
cystic fibrosis or
Children, especially those younger than 6 months of age
and those with other
health risks, need special attention when they have
diarrhea because they can quickly become
dehydrated. Careful observation of your child's
appearance and how much fluid he or she is drinking can help prevent
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when
your child should see a doctor.
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Normal stool during infancy may be runny or pasty, especially if the baby is
breast-fed. The presence of mucus in the stool is not uncommon. Unless there is
a change in your baby's normal habits, loose and frequent stools are not
considered to be diarrhea.
It's important to take action to prevent
Newborns and babies younger than 1 year of age
you see signs of dehydration in your baby. These signs include your baby being thirstier than usual and having less urine than usual.
- If you breast-feed your baby, nurse him or her
more often. Offer each breast to your baby for 1 to 2 minutes every 10 minutes.
- If you use a bottle to feed your baby, increase the number of feedings to make up for lost fluids. The amount of extra fluid your baby needs depends on your baby's age and size. For example, a newborn may need as little as 1 fl oz (30 mL) at each extra feeding, while a 12-month-old baby may need as much as 3 fl oz (90 mL) at each extra feeding.
- Ask your doctor if you need to use an
oral rehydration solution (ORS) if your baby still isn't getting enough fluids from formula or the breast. The
amount of ORS your baby needs depends on your baby's age and size. You can give the ORS in a dropper, spoon, or
- If your baby has started eating cereal, you may replace
lost fluids with cereal. You also may feed your baby strained bananas and
mashed potatoes if your child has had these foods before.
Children ages 1 through 11
- Make sure your child is drinking often.
Frequent, small amounts work best.
- Allow your child to drink as much fluid as he or she wants.
Encourage your child to
drink extra fluids or suck on flavored ice pops, such as Popsicles. Note: Do not give your child fruit juice or soda pop. Fruit juice and soda pop contain too much sugar and not enough of the essential minerals (electrolytes) that are being lost. Diet soda pop lacks calories that your child needs.
- Cereal mixed with milk or water may also be
used to replace lost fluids.
- If your child still is not getting enough fluids, you can try an oral rehydration solution (ORS).
- Give your child frequent small meals, at least 6 a day, while he or she is having diarrhea.
- The best foods for your child are easily digestible foods, such as rice cereal, pasta, breads, cooked beans, mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, applesauce, and bananas.
- Pretzels or salty crackers can help your child replace the salt lost from diarrhea.
- Foods containing large amounts of sugar or fat should be avoided.
- Do not withhold food from your child. Studies have shown that children who are fed easily digestible
foods have shorter episodes of diarrhea.
- If your child drinks cow's
milk, he or she may continue to drink it.
- Do not give your child
prescription or nonprescription medicine to stop diarrhea unless you are told
to do so by your child's doctor.
- Protect the diaper area with zinc
oxide or another cream. Diaper rash is common after diarrhea.
- Wash your hands and
your child's hands thoroughly after each diaper change and before each
- Until your doctor has assured you that your child's
diarrhea is not infectious, your child should not attend school or day
- Learn how to clean up diarrhea safely. Protect your hands with gloves while cleaning up. Wash your hands after you are done cleaning up.
If your child is also vomiting, learn about home treatment for vomiting.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
- Blood in
- Signs of dehydration
develop. These include your child being thirstier than usual and having darker urine than usual.
- Your child has diarrhea and a fever.
- Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
Do not allow your child to drink
untreated or unfiltered water from a lake or stream or unpasteurized milk.
Untreated water and unpasteurized milk are sources for viral, bacterial, and
parasitic infections, such as
Giardia lamblia. Avoid having your child brush his or
her teeth with untreated water. Even a small amount of untreated water can
contain enough parasites, virus, and bacteria to cause diarrhea.
Diarrhea can spread because of poor hygiene.
- Practice good hand-washing.
- Be sure to wash your hands and your child's
hands after each diaper change or trip to the bathroom.
- Teach your
child to wash his or her hands after using the bathroom and before every
- Do not place soiled diapers on surfaces that are used to
prepare or serve food.
- If your child attends school or day care, keep your
child at home until your doctor has determined that his or her diarrhea can't be
passed to others (is not infectious).
Food poisoning is a common cause of diarrhea in children and
adults. Most cases of food poisoning at home may be prevented by taking a few
precautions when preparing and storing food. Perishable foods, such as eggs,
meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, milk, and milk products, should be treated
with extra care. Also, precautions should be taken if you are pregnant, you
impaired immune system or a chronic illness, or you
are preparing foods for other high-risk groups, such as young children or older
The following steps are recommended to prevent food poisoning:
- Prepare foods safely.
- Shop safely.
- Cook foods safely.
- Store foods safely.
- Follow labels on food packaging.
- Serve foods safely.
- When in doubt, throw it out.
Many counties in the United States have extension services
listed in the phone book. These services can answer your questions about safe
home canning and food preparation.
When you travel in wilderness areas or to other countries of the world,
it is common to get traveler's diarrhea from food or water because the methods of food
preparation are different.
Rotavirus vaccine (What is a PDF document?) helps protect babies and young children from getting a
rotavirus infection, which can cause diarrhea and
dehydration. Talk to your child's doctor about this
vaccine for your child.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer
the following questions:
- How long has your child had
- How many times per day does your child have
- Describe your child's diarrhea:
- What color is it?
- Is it mushy or
- Does it contain blood or mucus?
- Have you
noticed an unusual odor?
- Does your child have other symptoms such as fever,
vomiting, or abdominal pain?
- Has your child taken any new
prescription or nonprescription medicines?
- Do you regularly give
your child laxatives or stool softeners?
- Has your child been eating
new or different foods?
- Has your child been exposed to other
children or adults who have diarrhea?
- Has your child drunk
untreated lake, stream or well water?
- Has your child recently
visited a foreign country where clean water or proper food preparation was not
- Has your child been exposed to farm
- Does your child have a history of chronic disease such as
cystic fibrosis or
- Does your child have any
- Nausea and Vomiting, Age 11 and Younger
- Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older