Diarrhea is the sudden increase in the frequency of stools that are usually loose and watery. There is mild diarrhea, where a person only has a few loose or not firm stools. Severe diarrhea is the passage of many, usually very watery stools. The best indicator of the severity of the diarrhea is how often someone is going to the bathroom.
Diarrhea is usually caused by a viral infection of the intestines. Sometimes it can also be caused by bacterial infections or parasites. If your child has just one or two loose stools, the cause is probably something unusual your child ate and will clear up on its own.
Rotavirus infection, a frequent cause of diarrhea in kids, can bring on explosive, loose, watery stools. Outbreaks are more common in the winter and spring months, particularly in childcare centers. An effective rotavirus vaccine is now recommended for infants and can reduce the occurence of rotavirus in kids.
Diarrhea from a viral infection usually lasts several days to two weeks, depending on the severity of the infection and regardless of the type of treatment. The virus just needs to run its course throughout the body. The main goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration. Your child needs to drink enough fluids to replace the fluids lost during the diarrhea episodes.
Depending on how frequent your child is having diarrhea, you can approach your child’s diet in different ways:
- Drink extra water: Make sure your child is staying hydrated. While mild diarrhea is not as much of a threat, replenishing lost water is still important.
- Don’t eat foods that will make symptoms worse: There are also foods to avoid feeding your child when they have diarrhea that can make symptoms worse, particularly fatty foods, sugary foods, and raw fruits and vegetables.
- Drink plenty of fluids: Encourage your child to drink lots of fluids, especially water, to prevent dehydration. Milk is also okay. Do not give your child fruit juices, because the acid in them can further irritate the intestinal lining and make diarrhea worse.
- Eat bland foods: The best diet to combat diarrhea is to follow the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet. These are bland foods that won’t further irritate or upset the digestive system. They are also easy for your child’s gastrointestinal tract to digest.
Children should take their time returning to their normal eating habits. For some kids, a return to their regular diet too quickly can also bring a return of diarrhea and related symptoms. This is often due to mild problems the gut has while absorbing regular foods while healing from inflammation.
Treatment and management
There is no one treatment or medication for diarrhea, but there are methods that can help alleviate symptoms or shorten the duration of your child’s diarrhea.
Children like to get into everything and anything, and diarrhea is easily spread through viruses and bacteria in foods, the outdoors, water, and other people. Always wash your hands after changing diapers or using the toilet, and make sure your kids are washing their hands after going to the bathroom or engaging in messy activities.
Also monitor how your child interacts with pets, as they can carry viruses and bacteria that can cause diarrhea. Avoid washing pet cages or bowls in the same sink that you use to prepare food and keep pet food bowls away from where you and your children eat.
Probiotics contain healthy bacteria that can replace unhealthy bacteria in the intestinal tract that may be causing diarrhea. Yogurt is the easiest source of probiotics for kids.
Avoid sugary beverages:
While your child may be clamoring for juices or soda, they will only further aggravate the gastrointestinal tract and make your child’s diarrhea worse. Sugar is an irritant and salty food and drink will only further dehydrate your child. Popsicles and Jell-O can be good sources of fluids, especially if your child is vomiting. You can slowly get large amounts of fluids into children with these products as they have some taste to them.
Don’t use over-the-counter medications:
Use of drugs that can relieve diarrhea should not be used in children unless you speak with a doctor first. Medications to relieve diarrhea, such as Pepto-Bismol, contain bismuth, magnesium, or aluminum, which can be harmful to infants and toddlers because they can quickly build up in young children’s bodies.
Be mindful of diaper rash:
For babies, the skin near your baby’s anus can become irritated by the diarrhea. Wash the area after each bowel movement and then protect it with a thick layer of petroleum jelly or other ointment. This protection is especially needed during the night and during naps. Changing the diaper quickly after stools also helps in reducing the chance of diaper rash.
Signs of severe dehydration
Children cannot themselves recognize when they are dehydrated and have different symptoms than adults. These symptoms include:
- Dry, sticky mouth
- Dark yellow urine, or very little or no urine output in a few hours
- Few or no tears when crying
- Cool skin that is dry to the touch
- Lack of energy and very lethargic
Severe dehydration can cause seizures, coma, organ failure, and, in rare circumstances, death. Take signs of dehydration seriously in your child.
When to call your child’s doctor
There are symptoms that indicate something more than just a viral infection is happening. Call your child’s doctor right away if you notice the following symptoms:
- There are signs of severe dehydration such as no urine in more than 12 hours, very dry mouth, no tears when crying
- Any blood appears in the stool
- There are more than seven stools in the last eight hours
- The diarrhea is loose and watery and your child is vomiting constantly
- High fever lasting more than a day or two
Chronic, recurring diarrhea or bouts of diarrhea that lasts more than one week may be related to other problems. Make an appointment with your child’s doctor to discuss symptoms and have tests to diagnose what may be going on.