Diarrhea is the sudden increase in the frequency and looseness of bowel movements (BMs). Mild diarrhea is the passage of a few loose or mushy BMs. Severe diarrhea is the passage of many watery BMs. The best indicator of the severity of the diarrhea is its frequency.
The main complication of diarrhea is dehydration from the loss of too much body fluid. Symptoms of dehydration are a dry mouth, the absence of tears, infrequent urination (for example, none in 12 hours), and a darker, concentrated urine. The main goal of diarrhea treatment is to prevent dehydration.
What is the cause?
Diarrhea is usually caused by a viral infection of the lining of the intestines (gastroenteritis). Sometimes it is caused by bacteria or parasites. Occasionally a food allergy or drinking too much fruit juice may cause diarrhea. If your child has just one or two loose bowel movements, the cause is probably something unusual your child ate. A diet of nothing but clear fluids for more than 2 days may cause green, watery bowel movements (called “starvation stools”).
How long will it last?
Diarrhea usually lasts 7 to 10 days, regardless of the type of treatment. The main goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration. Your child needs to drink enough fluids to replace the fluids lost in the diarrhea. Don’t expect a quick return to solid bowel movements.
What should I feed my child?
Increased fluids and dietary changes are the main treatment for diarrhea.
Note: One loose bowel movement can mean nothing. Don’t start dietary changes until your child has had several loose bowel movements.
Mild diarrhea (loose BMs)
Follow a regular diet with a few simple changes:
Eat more foods containing starch. Starchy foods are easily digested during diarrhea. Examples are cereal, breads, crackers, rice, mashed potatoes and noodles.
Drink more water. Avoid all fruit juices.
Avoid milk. Yogurt is okay. You may change to soymilk or lactofree milk.
Avoid green vegetables or any other foods that cause loose bowel movements.
Fluids: Encourage your child to drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Offer water as the main fluid for the first 24 hours of watery diarrhea. Avoid fruit juices, because they all make diarrhea worse. You may use Pedialyte, water, broth, Jello or 7-Up to hydrate.
Foods: Keep giving your child food while he has diarrhea. The choice of food is important. Starchy foods are digested best. Examples of such foods are dried cereals, grains, bread, crackers, rice, noodles, mashed potatoes, carrots, applesauce and bananas. Pretzels or saltine crackers can help meet your child’s need for sodium. On the second day of the diarrhea, if your child wants some protein, soft-boiled eggs or yogurt are usually easily digested.
How can I take care of my child?
Common mistakes: Kool-Aid, soda pop, or water should not be used as the only food because they contain little or no salt. Use only the fluids suggested here.
The most dangerous myth is that the intestine should be “put to rest.” Restricting fluids can cause dehydration.
There is no effective, safe drug for diarrhea. Extra fluids and diet therapy work best.
Prevention: Diarrhea is very contagious. Always wash your hands after changing diapers or using the toilet. This is crucial for keeping everyone in the family from getting diarrhea.
Vomiting with diarrhea: If your child has vomited more than twice, follow the recommended treatment for vomiting instead of this treatment for diarrhea until your child has gone 8 hours without vomiting.
When should I call my child’s health care provider?
Call IMMEDIATELY if:
There are signs of dehydration (no urine in more than 6 hours, very dry mouth, no tears).
Any blood appears in the diarrhea.
The diarrhea is severe (more than 7 BMs in the last 24 hours).
The diarrhea is watery AND your child also vomits repeatedly.