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When Your Child Has Diarrhea

Woman watching toddler girl drink water from sippy cup.
Have your child drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration from diarrhea.

Diarrhea is defined as loose bowel movements that are more frequent and watery than usual. It’s one of the most common illnesses in children. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration (loss of too much water from the body), which can be serious. So, preventing dehydration is important in managing your child’s diarrhea.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea may be caused by:

  • Bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections (such as Salmonella , rotavirus, or Giardia)

  • Food intolerances (such as dairy products)

  • Medicines (such as antibiotics)

  • Intestinal illness (such as Crohn’s disease)

What are common symptoms of diarrhea?

Common symptoms of diarrhea may include:

  • Looser, more watery stools than normal

  • More frequent stools than normal

  • More urgent need to pass stool than normal

  • Pain or spasms of the digestive tract

How is diarrhea diagnosed?

The healthcare provider examines your child. You’ll be asked about your child’s symptoms, health, and daily routine. The healthcare provider may also order lab tests, such as stool studies or blood tests. These tests can help find problems that may be causing your child’s diarrhea.

How is diarrhea treated?

Your child's healthcare provider can talk with you about treatment options. These may include:

  • Preventing dehydration by giving your child plenty of fluids (such as water). Infants may also be given a children’s electrolyte solution. Limit fruit juice, soda, and sports drinks. These have a lot of sugar.

  • Giving your child prescribed medicine to treat the cause of the diarrhea. Don't give your child antidiarrheal medicines unless told to by your child’s healthcare provider.

  • Eating starchy foods such as cereal, crackers, or rice.

  • Removing certain foods from your child’s diet if they are causing the diarrhea. Your child may need to stay away from dairy products and foods high in fat or sugar until the diarrhea has passed. However, most children can eat a regular diet, which will actually help them recover more quickly.

  • Infants can usually continue to breastfeed

When to call your child's healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider if your otherwise healthy child:

  • Has diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days.

  • Has a fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Is unable to keep down any food or water.

  • Shows signs of dehydration (very dark or little urine, no tears when crying, dry mouth, or dizziness).

  • Has blood or pus in the stool, or black, tarry stool.

  • Looks or acts very sick.

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Infant under 3 months old:

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.

Online Medical Reviewer: Amy Finke RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2019
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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