Find out what causes diarrhea and gastroenteritis and learn about the best treatment.


What Is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a condition in which the bowel produces frequent, loose, or watery stools.

Young infants often have many loose bowel movements each day; older children may go up to a few days between bowel movements. Your child's age can be a factor, but normal bowel movements patterns are different from child to child. When evaluating your child, it is important to compare the consistency and frequency of his bowel movements before and after he gets sick.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Food poisoning, allergic reactions or intolerance to certain foods, and side effects from medications (such as antibiotics) can cause diarrhea. The most common cause of diarrhea is gastroenteritis, a viral infection of the stomach and intestines. Children who suddenly get loose and frequent bowel movements most likely have acute gastroenteritis, which usually lasts from a day to a week. Other common symptoms of gastroenteritis may include nausea and/or vomiting, usually starting 24 to 48 hours before the diarrhea and fever.

Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a virus, but can also be caused by bacteria. Viral infections of the intestinal tract tend to be milder and may be associated with respiratory symptoms (sore throat, congestion, or earache), but gastroenteritis caused by bacterial infections is usually more severe and can result in diarrhea that contains blood. Diarrhea that occurs during after travel to a foreign country is often caused by bacteria. Most cases of gastroenteritis are self-limited, meaning that they do not require any specific treatment and the child will get better after a few days. The most important thing a parent can do is to make sure a sick child drinks enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

Diarrhea that lasts for more than two weeks is known as chronic diarrhea, which can be serious because it can lead to poor nutrition, which then causes weight loss and poor body growth. Chronic diarrhea can be caused by less common reasons, such as celiac disease (a sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat and grains), which causes loose, grey, and foul-smelling stool; and lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk), which can also cause diarrhea. Lactose intolerance usually runs in families or can show up in children as they get older. Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the intestine lining, is usually indicated by diarrhea combined with stomach pain.

Treatment for Diarrhea

Make sure your child is drinking enough liquids to replace the fluids, salts, and calories she is losing through diarrhea.

If your child's case of diarrhea is mild (not watery with under five bowel movements per day) she can continue her normal diet.

If your infant is being breastfed, continue to give her breast milk and feed her more often than usual. If you child does not want to breastfeed, give her small sips of breast milk by bottle, cup, or spoon. Infants who have been receiving formula can continue taking their regular, full-strength formula. In addition to breast milk and formula, give your child one of several specially prepared oral rehydration solutions (Pedialyte, Ricelyte, or Kao Lectrolyte). These solutions help to quickly replace the fluids and salts that are lost through diarrhea, and are available at the local drugstore or supermarket. Talk to your doctor about how much electrolyte solution you should give.

Children older than 1 year old can be given their regular diet, including undiluted milk and water. Some juices (blueberry or carrot) are known to help stop diarrhea. Rice, cereal, plain noodles, and other foods high in carbohydrates are helpful because these foods will help bind the loose stools.

Call 911 or your doctor immediately if your child shows these signs of dehydration as a result of diarrhea:

  • Listlessness, lethargy, dry lips or mouth
  • Change in behavior and loss of appetite or weight
  • Lack of urination for more than 4 to 6 hours (for a baby) or more than 6 to 8 hours (for an older child). Infants younger than 6 months will become dehydrated much more quickly than older children.
  • In infants, a sunken fontanel (the soft spot on top of the head)
  • Blood in the stools or diarrhea, accompanied by severe abdominal pain or high fever
  • A fever and diarrhea for more than three days.
  • A fever after returning home from a trip to a foreign country.

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