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When Your Child Has Diarrhea

Woman watching toddler girl drink water from sippy cup.
Have your child drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration from diarrhea.
Diarrhea is defined as loose bowel movements that are more frequent and watery than usual. It’s one of the most common illnesses in children. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration (loss of too much water from the body), which can be serious. So, preventing dehydration is important in managing your child’s diarrhea.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea may be caused by:

  • Bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections (such as Salmonella, rotavirus, or Giardia)

  • Food intolerances (such as dairy products)

  • Medicines (such as antibiotics)

  • Intestinal illness (such as Crohn’s disease)

What are common symptoms of diarrhea?

Common symptoms of diarrhea may include:

  • Looser, more watery stools than normal

  • More frequent stools than normal

  • More urgent need to pass stool than normal

  • Pain or spasms of the digestive tract

How is diarrhea diagnosed?

The healthcare provider examines your child. You’ll be asked about your child’s symptoms, health, and daily routine. The healthcare provider may also order lab tests, such as stool studies or blood tests. These tests can help detect problems that may be causing your child’s diarrhea.

How is diarrhea treated?

Your child's healthcare provider can talk with you about treatment options. These may include:

  • Preventing dehydration by giving your child plenty of fluids (such as water). Infants may also be given a children’s electrolyte solution. Limit fruit juice or soda, which has a lot of sugar, as do commercially available sports drinks.

  • Giving your child prescribed medicine to treat the cause of the diarrhea. Do not give your child antidiarrheal medicines unless told to by your child’s healthcare provider.

  • Eating starchy foods such as cereal, crackers, or rice.

  • Removing certain foods from your child’s diet if they are causing the diarrhea. Your child may need to avoid dairy products and foods high in fat or sugar until the diarrhea has passed. However, most children can eat a regular diet, which will actually help them recover more quickly.

  • Infants can usually continue to breastfeed

Call the healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider if your otherwise healthy child:

  • Has fever or diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days.

  • Has a fever:

    • In an infant under 3 months old, a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38ºC) or higher, or as advised by your child's healthcare provider

    • In a child of any age who has a temperature that rises repeatedly to 104°F (40ºC) or higher, or as advised by your child's healthcare provider

    • A fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old or for 3 days in a child 2 years older.

    • Has a seizure caused by the fever 

  • Is unable to keep down any food or water.

  • Shows signs of dehydration (very dark or little urine, no tears when crying, dry mouth, or dizziness).

  • Has blood or pus in the stool, or black, tarry stool.

  • Looks or acts very sick.

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD
Last Review Date: 10/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.