Most kids battle diarrhea — frequent, runny bowel movements (poop) — from time to time. The good news is that it usually doesn't last long and is more annoying than dangerous. Still, it's important to know how to relieve and even prevent diarrhea.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is usually brought on by gastrointestinal (GI) infections caused by germs (viruses, bacteria, or parasites).
Viral gastroenteritis (often called the "stomach flu") is a common cause of diarrhea and, often, nausea and vomiting. It can spread through a household, school, or childcare center quickly. The symptoms usually last just a few days, but kids (especially babies) who can't get enough fluids can become dehydrated.
Rotavirus infection, a frequent cause of diarrhea in kids, can bring on explosive, watery diarrhea. Outbreaks are more common in the winter and early spring months, especially in childcare centers. A very effective rotavirus vaccine is now recommended for infants.
Enteroviruses, particularly coxsackievirus, also can cause diarrhea in kids, especially during the summer months.
Symptoms usually start with crampy abdominal pain followed by diarrhea that usually lasts no more than a few days. Infections with many of the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea also can bring on other symptoms, such as:
Call your doctor if your child has diarrhea and is younger than 6 months old or has:
a severe or long-lasting episode of diarrhea
fever of 102°F or higher
repeated vomiting, or refusal to drink fluids
severe abdominal pain
diarrhea that has blood or mucus
Call the doctor immediately if your child seems to be dehydrated. Signs include:
dry or sticky mouth
few or no tears when crying
eyes that look sunken
in a baby, the soft spot (fontanelle) on top of the head looks sunken
peeing less or fewer wet diapers
dry, cool skin
drowsiness or dizziness
How Can I Care for My Child?
Mild diarrhea usually isn't cause for concern if your child is acting normally and drinking and eating enough. It usually passes in a few days, and kids recover with home care, rest, and plenty of fluids.
Kids who aren't dehydrated or vomiting can continue eating and drinking as usual. In fact, continuing a regular diet may even shorten the diarrhea episode. You may want to serve smaller portions of food until the diarrhea ends.
Do not give your child an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine unless your doctor gives the OK.
The goal when treating diarrhea is to replace the lost fluids and electrolytes (salts and minerals). For kids who aren't dehydrated, doctors recommend:
Continuing with a regular diet and giving more liquids to replace those lost while the diarrhea continues.
Offering additional breastmilk or formula to infants.
For kids who show signs of mild dehydration, doctors often recommend rehydration with an oral rehydration solution (ORS). These are available in most grocery stores and drugstores without a prescription and replace body fluids quickly. Your doctor will tell you what kind to give, how much, and for how long.
Kids should never be rehydrated with water alone because it doesn't contain the right mix of sodium, potassium, and other important minerals and nutrients.
In some cases, kids with severe diarrhea may need to get IV fluids at the hospital for a few hours to help combat dehydration.
It's almost impossible to prevent kids from ever getting diarrhea. But here are some ways to make it less likely:
Make sure kids wash their hands well and often, especially after using the toilet and before eating. Hand washing is the most effective way to prevent diarrheal infections that pass from person to person. Dirty hands carry germs into the body when kids bite their nails, suck their thumbs, eat with their fingers, or put any part of their hands into their mouths.