Diarrhea in Children

What is diarrhea in children?

Diarrhea is when stools (bowel
movements) are loose and watery. Your child may also need to go to the bathroom more
often.

Diarrhea is a common problem. It may last 1 or 2 days and go away on its own. If diarrhea lasts more than 2 days, your child may have a more serious problem.

Diarrhea may be either:

  • Short-term (acute). Diarrhea that lasts 1 or 2 days and
    goes away. This may be caused by food or water that was contaminated by bacteria
    (bacterial infection). Or it may happen if your child gets sick from a virus.
  • Long-term (chronic). Diarrhea that lasts for a few weeks.
    This may be caused by another health problem such as irritable bowel syndrome. It can
    also be caused by an intestinal disease. This includes ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s
    disease, or celiac disease. Giardia may also cause chronic diarrhea.

What causes diarrhea in a child?

Diarrhea may be caused by many things, including:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Viral infection
  • Trouble digesting certain things (food intolerance)
  • An immune system response to certain foods (food allergy)
  • Parasites that enter the body through food or water
  • Reaction to medicines
  • An intestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • A problem with how the stomach and bowels work (functional bowel disorder), such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • Surgery on the stomach or gallbladder

Children who visit some foreign countries are at risk for traveler’s diarrhea. This is caused by having food or water that is not safe because of bacteria, viruses, or parasites.

Severe diarrhea may mean a child
has a serious disease. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if symptoms don’t go
away. Also talk with the provider if symptoms stop your child from doing daily
activities. It may be hard to find out what is causing your child’s diarrhea. 

What are the symptoms of diarrhea in a child?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:

  • Cramping
  • Belly (abdominal) pain
  • Swelling (bloating)
  • Upset stomach (nausea)
  • Urgent need to use the bathroom
  • Fever
  • Bloody stools
  • Loss of body fluids (dehydration)
  • Incontinence

The symptoms of diarrhea may look like other health problems. Severe diarrhea may be a sign of a serious disease. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is diarrhea diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may have lab tests to check blood and urine.

Other tests may include:

  • A stool culture to check for abnormal
    bacteria or parasites in your child’s digestive tract. A small stool sample is taken
    and sent to a lab.
  • A stool evaluation to check the stool for blood or fat
  • Blood tests to rule out certain diseases
  • Imaging tests to rule out structural problems
  • Tests to check for food intolerance or allergies
  • A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to
    check the inside of part or all of your child’s large intestine