Diarrhea in Children and Toddlers
From time to time, every child experiences diarrhea. While the issue typically passes on its own within a few days, it is understandable for parents to be concerned.
Knowing the most common symptoms, causes, and potential treatments for diarrhea may help you resolve the issue quickly.
What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Diarrhea?
The most obvious sign that your child has diarrhea is a loose stool. Bowel movements may appear runny and contain more liquid compared to typical bowel movements.
However, there are additional diarrhea symptoms that may occur, such as:
- Loss of appetite
Dehydration is one of the biggest concerns when a child experiences diarrhea. Children who show signs of dehydration may require oral rehydration solutions (ORS), which can be purchased over the counter at most drugstores.
Nausea and vomiting may indicate that your child is suffering from a gastrointestinal infection caused by viruses, parasites, or bacteria.
Loss of appetite and fatigue are common signs of GI infections. However, a child suffering from dehydration may also exhibit these symptoms.
Detecting diarrhea in infants is different. Infants tend to have soft, loose stool, especially in the first two months.
However, if the stool is unusually watery or bowel movements occur more frequently, your infant may have diarrhea. It is also common for diarrhea to cause rashes due to the frequent soiling and cleaning.
Potential Causes of Diarrhea in Children and Infants
Exploring the possible causes of diarrhea may help you relieve the situation. The causes may also vary if your child is an infant.
Infants often experience diarrhea due to milk allergies or when switching to a different formula. About 3% of children are allergic to milk proteins. If your child has a milk allergy, besides diarrhea, he or she may spit up frequently.
Older children and infants may also develop diarrhea due to a variety of issues, including:
- Gastrointestinal (GI) infections from viruses, parasites, and bacteria
- Lactose intolerance
- Gluten intolerance
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Celiac disease
Viral gastroenteritis is a viral infection and a common cause of diarrhea. It is also called the stomach flu. Children with stomach flu may experience the symptoms discussed. However, they typically pass within a few days. Hydration remains the biggest concern.
Rotavirus is another viral infection that may cause diarrhea and is much more common during the winter. The diarrhea is often explosive and watery.
Enterovirus may also cause diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. It commonly occurs during the summer and is spread through feces.
Besides viral infections, there are many types of bacteria and parasites that may cause diarrhea. Salmonella, E. coli, and Giardia are common causes.
With any type of GI issue, your child may experience the typical symptoms of sickness. However, diarrhea often passes within a few days. If diarrhea persists, it may be the result of an allergy or a gastrointestinal disease.
As mentioned, milk allergies can affect infants. Food allergies, including peanut allergies, may cause diarrhea in older children.
Inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease are two types of gastrointestinal diseases that may lead to diarrhea.
Weight loss and blood in the stool are potential signs of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Your child may also develop rashes and not grow as quickly as other children his or her age.
Celiac disease is a type of autoimmune disorder that occurs due to gluten intolerance. It prevents the small intestine from absorbing nutrients from certain foods. Children who suffer from celiac disease may also become malnourished and experience stomach bloating and abdominal pain.
How to Determine If Your Child Is Dehydrated
Sometimes diarrhea is a temporary issue due to minor changes in your child’s diet. However, if normal bowel movements do not resume within a day or two, your child may be at risk of dehydration.
No matter the cause, dehydration is a potential side effect of diarrhea from the loss of excess fluids. If your child has diarrhea, you should also pay attention to the signs of dehydration:
- Dry mouth
- Dark urine or no urine
- No tears or fewer tears
- Lethargy and lack of energy
- Dry skin
Severe cases of dehydration can lead to additional health complications including brain damage and seizures. If you are concerned about the risks of dehydration, your best option is to contact your doctor immediately.
While diarrhea often passes within a few days, adding fluids to combat dehydration may cause diarrhea to persist. You should never use water to try rehydrating a dehydrated child.
Infants may require additional formula or breastmilk to stay hydrated. Toddlers and young children may benefit from over-the-counter rehydration sources such as Pedialyte.
Home Remedies and Foods for Treating Diarrhea
If your child has diarrhea, you should try to determine if any changes to his or her diet in the past few days may have caused the problem. In many cases, the diarrhea is simply the result of something that your child ate.
For these mild cases of diarrhea, you may not need to use any home remedies. The issue should pass within a few days. However, it is also important to prevent dehydration by providing necessary fluids. Infants may need additional breastmilk and older children may need oral rehydration solutions (OSR).
Doctors also recommend that you continue with your child’s regular diet unless you suspect that the issue is related to a GI issue. If your child is sick or dehydrated, you should not use over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication without consulting with your doctor.
Keep in mind that if your child has one loose stool, you should not make any major changes to his or her diet or routine. When your child has had multiple loose stools, there are a couple of home remedies that may help treat the issue.
While most doctors recommend normal eating, your child may benefit from table foods. For example, you may feed your child foods with starchy ingredients such as grains, cereals, crackers, pasta, bread, and mashed potatoes. These foods are easier to digest.
You should also avoid feeding your child any foods that may loosen the stool, such as beans, fried foods, and fatty foods. If your child has lactose intolerance, dairy products may cause watery bowel movements.
Some parents follow the BRAT diet when their children suffer from diarrhea. BRAT is an acronym for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods also include starches, sodium, and other nutrients that may help firm the stool.
Yogurt is also a suitable food for young children and toddlers that may help treat mild cases of diarrhea and fight bacterial infections in the gut.
Yogurt is a probiotic, which means that it contains healthy bacteria. The healthy bacteria can replace unhealthy bacteria and may ease gastrointestinal distress.
There are also several common mistakes that parents make when their children suffer from diarrhea.
Giving your child soda pop, Kool-Aid, and fruit juices may make the problem worse. These drinks contain too much sugar. Clear fluids should also be avoided as they do not contain the electrolytes needed to keep your child hydrated.
When Should You Take Your Child to the Doctor for Diarrhea?
When you first detect diarrhea, you should pay attention to any other symptoms. Fever, nausea, and vomiting may indicate that your child has a stomach flu or another GI issue.
In most cases, the stomach bug will pass within a few days. Give your child plenty of rest, fluids, and a regular diet. However, if any of the symptoms worsen, you should consult your doctor immediately.
You should also consult your doctor if you detect any signs of gastrointestinal disease. If your child’s stomach becomes bloated or you detect blood in the stool, do not hesitate to visit your child’s pediatrician.
If your child becomes lethargic, vomits excessively, and is severely dehydrated, you should take your child to the emergency room or attempt to schedule an emergency appointment with your child’s pediatrician.
Last Thoughts on Dealing with Diarrhea in Children
Any type of illness can be scary, especially when it is your child who is sick. However, diarrhea is not always the result of an illness.
In fact, occasional diarrhea is perfectly normal for people of all ages from infants to adults.
When should you be concerned? If your child experiences several watery bowel movements in a row, a GI issue may be causing diarrhea.
Pay attention to any other symptoms or changes in your child’s behavior. If he or she becomes sluggish, fatigued, and nauseated, you should visit your doctor as soon as you can.
However, most cases of diarrhea should not cause major concern. While waiting for the issue to pass or for your appointment with the pediatrician, give your child plenty of rest and fluids.
You should also continue feeding your child normally. With infants, you may even want to offer additional milk or formula unless they begin to spit up the food.
In the end, diarrhea is a common issue. When it is paired with other symptoms and does not pass, talk to your doctor.