Why do children get diarrhea more often than adults? How can you treat your child’s discomfort? WebMD tells you about the causes of diarrhea and home treatments for it.
Diarrhea in Children: Common Causes and Treatments
Diarrhea is the body’s way of ridding itself of germs, and most episodes last a few days to a week. Diarrhea can occur with fever, nausea, vomiting, cramps, dehydration, and even rashes. Some of the most common reasons kids get diarrhea include:
- Infection from viruses like rotavirus, bacteria like salmonella and, rarely, parasites like giardia. Viruses are the most common cause of a child’s diarrhea. Along with loose or watery stools, symptoms of a viral gastroenteritis infection often include vomiting, stomachache, headache, and fever.
When treating viral gastroenteritis — which can last 5-14 days — it’s important to prevent fluid loss. Offer additional breast milk or an oral rehydration solution (ORS) to infants and young children. Water alone doesn’t have enough sodium, potassium, and other nutrients to safely rehydrate very young children. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the amount of fluids your child needs, how to make sure they get them, when to give them, and how to watch for dehydration.
Older children with diarrhea can drink anything they like to stay hydrated, including ORS and brand-name products (their names usually end in “lyte"). Popsicles can also be a good way to get fluids into a child who’s been vomiting and needs to rehydrate slowly.
Be sure to consult with a doctor if you have travelled outside of the country recently; your child may need to have their stool tested. If symptoms last longer than two weeks, also consult a doctor.
- Medications like laxatives or antibiotics can also lead to diarrhea in children as well as adults.
For mild diarrhea caused by medication, keep your child safely hydrated. If a course of antibiotics is causing your child’s diarrhea, be sure to continue the medication and call your doctor. Your doctor may recommend reducing the dose, changing your diet, adding a probiotic or switching to a different antibiotic.
Studies show that yogurt with live cultures or probiotics can help ease diarrhea caused by antibiotics. Cultures and probiotics help replenish healthy gut bacteria killed by antibiotics.
- Food poisoning can also cause diarrhea in kids. Symptoms usually come on quickly, may include vomiting, and tend to go away within 24 hours.
Treatment for food poisoning-related diarrhea is the same as for the diarrhea caused by infection: Keep your child hydrated and call your doctor with any questions.
Other causes of diarrhea include irritable bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, food allergies, and celiac disease. If you’re not sure what’s causing your child’s diarrhea, give your doctor a call.
Children and Diarrhea: Recognizing Dehydration
Dehydration is one of the most worrisome complications of diarrhea in children. Mild diarrhea usually doesn’t cause significant fluid loss, but moderate or severe diarrhea can.
Severe dehydration is dangerous; it can cause seizures, brain damage, even death. Know the signs of dehydration. Call your doctor if your child has:
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Dry, sticky mouth
- Dark yellow urine, or very little or no urine
- Few or no tears when crying
- Cool, dry skin
- Lack of energy
When to Call a Doctor About Your Child’s Diarrhea
Diarrhea usually goes away in a few days, but it can lead to complications. If your child has any of these symptoms, don’t wait, get help.
Call 911 if your child:
- Is too weak to stand up
- Is confused or dizzy
Call your doctor right away if your child:
- Seems very sick
- Has had diarrhea more than three days
- Is younger than 6 months old
- Is vomiting bloody green or yellow fluid
- Can’t hold down fluids or has vomited more than two times
- Has a persistent fever or is under age 6 months with a fever over 100.4° F (determined by a rectal thermometer)
- Seems dehydrated
- Has bloody stool
- Is less than a month old with three or more episodes of diarrhea
- Passes more than four diarrhea stools in eight hours and isn’t drinking enough
- Has a weak immune system
- Has a rash
- Has stomach pain for more than two hours
- Has not urinated in 6 hours if a baby or 12 hours if a child
NOTE: If your infant has a fever of over 100.4 F, do not give them fever medicine.
- Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Should Your Child See a Doctor? Diarrhea."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Viral Gastroenteritis."
- Children’s Hospital Colorado: “Diarrhea."
- National Institutes of Health: “Diarrhea in Children – Diet;" “Dehydration;" “Food Poisoning;" “Diarrhea;" and “Probiotics For Pediatric Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea: A Meta-Analysis Of Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trials."
- KidsHealth.org: “Infections: Diarrhea."