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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.

Dietary changes

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.

Infection

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 days.

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 poor hand-washing.

Other causes

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 celiac disease.

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 problems.

Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.

Note:

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 dehydration.

Newborns and babies younger than 1 year of age

Don't wait until 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.
  • Do not give your baby plain water. 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 bottle.
    • Offer 0.5 fl oz (15 mL) of the drink every 10 minutes for the first hour. If your baby has trouble drinking that amount at a time, you can give small sips (about 5 mL) instead. Just give the smaller sips more often.
    • After the first hour, gradually increase the amount of ORS that you offer your baby. You can stop using ORS when your baby is feeding normally again.
  • 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. Children ages 4 to 10 should drink at least 6 to 10 cups of liquids to replace lost fluids. Note: Do not give your child plain water, fruit juice, or soda pop unless you don't have any other rehydration fluids available. 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.

General tips

  • 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 feeding.
  • Until your doctor has assured you that your child's diarrhea is not infectious, your child should not attend school or day care.
  • 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 treatment:

  • Blood in diarrhea develops.
  • 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 meal.
    • 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 have an impaired immune system or a chronic illness, or you are preparing foods for other high-risk groups, such as young children or older people.

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 diarrhea?
  • How many times per day does your child have diarrhea?
  • Describe your child's diarrhea:
    • What color is it?
    • Is it mushy or watery?
    • 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 available?
  • Has your child been exposed to farm animals?
  • Does your child have a history of chronic disease such as cystic fibrosis or celiac disease?
  • Does your child have any health risks?
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 11 and Younger
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older

By: Healthwise Staff Current as of: November 13, 2013
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine

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