Medical Conditions



Diarrhea

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is defined either as watery stool or increased frequency (or both) when compared to a normal amount. It is a common problem that may last a few days and disappear on its own.

Diarrhea may be:

  • acute (short-term, lasting less than two weeks), which is usually related to bacterial or viral infections.
  • chronic (long-term, lasting longer than two weeks), which is usually related to functional disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, or may be due to diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, celiac sprue, or Giardia.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea in children may be caused by a number of conditions, including the following:

  • bacterial infection
  • viral infection
  • food intolerances or allergies
  • parasites
  • reaction to medications
  • an intestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • a functional bowel disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • a result of surgery on the stomach or gall bladder

Many people suffer "traveler's diarrhea" caused by a bacterial infection or a parasite, or even food poisoning.

Severe diarrhea may indicate a serious disease, and it is important to consult your physician if the symptoms persist or affect daily activities. Identifying the cause of the problem may be difficult.

What are the symptoms of diarrhea?

The following are the most common symptoms for diarrhea. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Severe diarrhea may indicate a serious disease, making it important to consult your child's physician if any/all of the following symptoms persist:

  • cramping
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • nausea
  • urgent need to use the restroom
  • fever
  • bloody stools
  • dehydration
  • incontinence

The symptoms of diarrhea may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

Warning signs of severe diarrhea:

You should call your pediatrician if your child is less than 6 months of age or presents any of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain
  • blood in the stool
  • frequent vomiting
  • loss of appetite for liquids
  • high fever
  • dry, sticky mouth
  • weight loss
  • urinates less frequently (wets fewer than 6 diapers per day)
  • frequent diarrhea
  • extreme thirst
  • no tears when crying
  • depressed fontanelle (soft spot) on infant's head

How is diarrhea diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history, physical examination and laboratory tests for blood and urine, the child's physician may request:

  • stool culture - checks for the presence of abnormal bacteria in the digestive tract that may cause diarrhea and other problems. A small sample of stool is collected and sent to a laboratory by your physician's office. In two or three days, the test will show whether abnormal bacteria are present.
  • additional blood tests
  • imaging tests - rule out structural abnormalities
  • fasting tests - identify food intolerance or allergies
  • sigmoidoscopy - a diagnostic procedure that allows the physician to examine the inside of a portion of the large intestine, and is helpful in identifying the causes of diarrhea, abdominal pain, constipation, abnormal growths, and bleeding. A short, flexible, lighted tube, called a sigmoidoscope, is inserted into the intestine through the rectum. The scope blows air into the intestine to inflate it and make viewing the inside easier.

Treatment for diarrhea:

Specific treatment for diarrhea will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • the expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment usually involves replacing lost fluids. Antibiotics may be prescribed when bacterial infections are the cause.

To replace the body fluids that are lost with diarrhea, children should drink glucose-electrolyte solutions (for example, Pedialyte or Infalyte). These fluids have the right balance of water, sugar and salts, and some are available as popsicles. Avoid caffeine, milk products, foods that are greasy, high in fiber, or very sweet because they can make diarrhea worse. Avoid just plain water. If breastfeeding, continue to do so.

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Last reviewed: 9/30/2009