The most common viruses that can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms in children are rotaviruses, noroviruses, and adenoviruses. Outbreaks are common in schools and daycare centers, especially during the winter months.
Viral gastroenteritis (also commonly known as the stomach flu) typically causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea lasting for a few days. Fevers are also common.
Food poisoning is another common culprit of diarrhea, lasting for around 24 hours after the consumption of a tainted food product. Vomiting, chills, and nausea can occur with food poisoning as well.
Some of the most common types of bacteria behind food poisoning include E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter.
In other cases, the cause of your child’s diarrhea could be an infection of parasites such as giardiasis or cryptosporidiosis. Parasites can be highly contagious and spread rapidly in facilities like daycares and preschools, as well as community swimming areas like pools and lakes.
Parasitic infections typically clear up within a week with proper medication but may turn chronic and require further treatment. Symptoms such as nausea, fever, and loss of appetite may occur alongside diarrhea.
Food Allergies and Intolerances
Milk allergy and lactose intolerance are some of the most common causes of diarrhea in young children. Gluten is another common culprit, with reactions ranging from full-blown Celiac disease to a mild gluten sensitivity.
When in doubt, try an elimination diet and see if that clears up your child’s symptoms. An allergist can also help determine if food allergies might be the cause of your child’s tummy troubles.
Chronic diarrhea can be a cause for concern and a symptom of a larger problem. It may also cause malabsorption and even lead to dehydration. Chronic diarrhea could be a lingering effect from a prior illness, or it may point to a GI disorder such as IBS.
In some cases, your child’s doctor may order that a stool sample be taken and sent to a lab to further determine the underlying cause of their chronic diarrhea.
When to Call a Doctor
For children younger than six months, call a doctor for any case of diarrhea. In older children, you can typically follow a “wait and see” approach unless your child has severe stomach pain, has bloody stool, can’t keep fluids down, or has prolonged diarrhea lasting more than three days.
Other symptoms that should prompt a call or visit the doctor include signs of dehydration such as a dry mouth, no tears when crying, sunken eyes, a sunken soft spot (fontanelle) in infants, little to no urine output, and drowsiness or dizziness.
Treatment of Diarrhea in Children
Regardless of the cause, the treatment of diarrhea in children remains largely the same. It is very important to keep your child hydrated as much as possible, watch for signs of dehydration or prolonged fever, and monitor for blood in the stool.
Your child’s doctor may recommend the use of oral rehydration solutions (ORS) like Pedialyte to help stave off mild dehydration and replenish the body’s fluid stores.
In most cases, medication is not necessary and may even make the situation worse. This is because diarrhea is typically the body’s way of clearing out a foreign invader such as Salmonella, and you don’t want to interfere with that process.
The exception is in cases of bacterial diarrhea or diarrhea caused by a parasite, which could require antibiotics or an anti-parasitic medication.
When in doubt, call your child’s pediatrician or book an appointment at your local urgent care clinic. And if your child shows signs of being severely dehydrated or has a lingering high fever, seek emergency medical care immediately.