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Diarrhea In Children

It can be quite upsetting to watch the children we love suffer from a bout of diarrhea. The good news is, in most cases, diarrhea in children is caused by viral infections that are short-lived and not dangerous. Understanding the causes, treatment, and prevention of diarrhea can go a long way toward minimizing this unpleasant experience.

Hydration is Key

While many of the germs causing diarrhea in children are not considered deadly, this condition still needs to be taken seriously. Diarrhea can lead to a significant loss of body fluids and thus electrolytes, particularly in the small bodies of children, and this can become serious. If your child develops diarrhea, it is crucial to keep them hydrated. Be sure they drink plenty of extra fluids during this time of illness. You can choose from a variety of rehydration drinks and your pediatrician can advise you further.

Signs of Dehydration

Even with the best home treatment, diarrhea in children can quickly lead to dehydration. If this happens, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Signs of severe dehydration include:

  • No tears (or only a few tears) when crying
  • Eyes appear sunken
  • Lack of urine flow for more than six hours (or small amounts of dark yellow urine)
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Cool, dry skin
  • In babies, the fontanel (soft spot) on top of the head appears sunken

If you see signs of dehydration in your child, take them to your doctor or an emergency room right away!

Other Complications

Most cases of diarrhea in children will resolve on their own. The best tactic for parents or caregivers is to keep the child hydrated and comfortable. However, some symptoms warrant additional concern. Seek medical attention if any of the following apply:

  • The diarrhea is severe or persists for more than a day or two
  • It contains blood or mucus
  • It’s accompanied by vomiting
  • Your child experiences severe abdominal pain
  • He or she refuses to take fluids
  • It’s accompanied by a fever of 102 degrees or higher
  • Your child is under six months of age

How Do Children Get Diarrhea?

Children are curious about everything and they learn about the world by touching everything they see and even each other. The local park and any public place (such as the school playground or classroom) is a perfect environment for spreading germs simply due to contact of kids with many others. Children often put their fingers in their mouths and eat with their hands without washing first.

Infant diarrhea (and even diarrhea in children that are older) is often caused by a hand-to-mouth transmission of bacteria and viruses. Children also pick up germs from contaminated water or food, from direct contact with waste (via their diapers or their potty and other toilets), and from playing with household or stray animals. For example, turtles and iguanas can carry Salmonella, and ever dogs and cats often carry diarrhea-producing bacteria.

Common Causes of Diarrhea in Children


A common viral cause of diarrhea in children is rotavirus. This infection causes explosive, watery diarrhea and infiltrates the digestive systems of almost all American children by the time they are four or five years old. Outbreaks of rotavirus are most common in the winter and early spring. Thankfully, not everyone who comes into contact with this virus will experience diarrhea symptoms. Many children are also affected by Coxsackievirus—another diarrhea producing bug common during the summer.


Many types of bacterial infections also produce diarrhea in children. E. Coli is spread in a variety of ways. This bacterium can enter the digestive system through physical contact with feces (human or animal), by swimming in contaminated water, or by eating contaminated food such as unwashed produce or undercooked meat. Undercooked chicken carries a high risk for distributing diarrhea-causing bacteria. Campylobacter and Salmonella enteritidis bacteria are both commonly found in raw chicken and only thorough cooking will kill these organisms. Salmonella is also found in raw and undercooked eggs, so you shouldn’t eat them.


Intestinal infestations are another cause of diarrhea in children. Kids can be exposed to organisms such as Giardia and cryptosporidium in water parks and pools (Giardia is chlorine-resistant), dirty lakes and streams, and contaminated drinking water.

Other Causes

Sometimes childhood bouts of diarrhea are not caused by infection. Other causes include food allergies, celiac disease (gluten intolerance), Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and food allergies.

Methods for Preventing Diarrhea in Kids

It would be rare (but fortunate) for a child to grow to adulthood without experiencing diarrhea at least once. However, most cases of diarrhea in children can be prevented by implementing simple hygiene measures. It’s important to teach your child to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after playing outside or with pets or other children, before eating anything, during times of illness, and especially after using the bathroom. In addition, hands should be washed before touching the mouth or other mucous membrane areas.

Always carefully wash produce and cook meats, fish, vegetables, and eggs separately and completely. Drinking water should come only from safe sources, should be purified, and should be tested regularly. While it’s impossible to remove germs from every surface your child touches, germs on hard surfaces for preparing food, changing diapers, etc. (particularly in schools and daycare centers) should be killed with a mild bleach solution daily if not several times a day. As you can see, it’s just a matter of common sense when it comes to preventing diarrhea in children. Whether it’s your kitchen counter or your kid, when in doubt … clean it!

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