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Diarrhea and children: What to look for and how to treat it

Let’s face it, all kids have episodes of loose poop or diarrhea, but do you know what causes it, the signs and symptoms and how to control it? Sometimes diarrhea is caused by simple things such as changes in diet: like drinking too much fruit juice, eating an extensive amount of spicy foods or the use of certain medications. Diarrhea can also be the result of an intestinal problem, such as inability to absorb nutrients or an allergy to foods. Another reason for loose poops are from viruses, bacteria and parasites. Depending on the reason for a child’s loose poop determines how easily and the time frame it takes to clear up.

Time for plenty of soft toilet paper.
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

What are the signs and symptoms?

Diarrhea is not a disease, but rather a symptom of another underlying condition. According to KidsHealth.org, the signs and symptoms of diarrhea are:

  • Frequent loose or watery stools
  • Abdominal cramps and tenderness
  • Possible fever
  • Generally not feeling well
  • Blood in the stool

If your child’s loose stools are caused by minor food changes, the episodes should subside without too many problems. The common stomach flu (gastroenteritis) may cause diarrhea along with nausea and vomiting. Viruses such as Rotovirus is common in the winter months. The Enteroviruses are more common in the summer and are the cause of fever and generalized illness, along with diarrhea. Loose stools from bacteria are less common, but may cause bloody diarrhea. Bacterias such as Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli and Clostridium dificile can be easily picked up from fecal-oral route with other infected people and unfortunately by contamination of foods during processing. Parasites can be picked up such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. If a child has profuse and extended diarrhea, then many pediatricians will do stool studies to find out the cause. Cultures and microscopic examinations may be performed.

How is diarrhea spread?

Children are notorious with putting fingers in the mouth. The fecal-oral route is when fecally contaminated food, hands or surfaces are touched and make way to the mouth.

Water or food that is contaminated by human or animal feces, for example in swimming pools

Contact with raw or undercooked poultry

Contact with animals in the child’s environment such as puppies, reptiles or poultry, or during trips to petting zoos or pet stores.

How do you control it?

Ensure that children get immunizations for rotavirus.

Use good hand-washing techniques at all times, especially after using the toilet, playing outdoors in the dirt even playing with other children and toys. Make sure hands are washed before anything to do with food preparation or eating.

Make sure food is cooked well and stored properly.

Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.

Treatment goals in diarrhea include relief of symptoms and correction of underlying disorders. Clear liquids are prescribed for children to prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. There are oral rehydration solutions to replace body fluids such as Pedialyte. Along with these products feed the kids broth (my children‘s favorite was chicken with rice soup which included the rice from the BRAT diet), flavored gelatin, water, weak decaf or herbal tea and sports drinks. Introduce a BRAT diet, which is bananas, rice, applesauce and toast as long as there is not vomiting combined with the diarrhea.

Always check with your doctor when in doubt about your child’s condition. Call a medical professional if:

  • The stool contains blood or mucus
  • Diarrhea developed after a trip outside the United States or camping
  • Loose movements lasting longer than two to three days
  • Signs of dehydration (dry mouth, scant urination, sunken eyes or no tears when crying

Hopefully your child’s loose poop will not last long and they will be on the road to healing.

Other references:

Managing Infectious Diseases in Child Care and Schools; American Academy of Pediatrics; 2009