Causes of diarrhoea

The most common cause of acute or short-term diarrhoea in children is gastroenteritis or ‘gastro’. Your child might also get diarrhoea if he’s been taking medications like antibiotics for another illness.

Sometimes but not often, diarrhoea is a sign of a more serious illness such as appendicitis.

Chronic or persistent diarrhoea is diarrhoea that doesn’t go away after a few days.

This diarrhoea might follow a bout of gastroenteritis. In this case, the diarrhoea might be caused by temporary lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance causes watery, often sweet-smelling diarrhoea, which can irritate the skin around your child’s bottom, making it red and sore.

Chronic diarrhoea that lasts more than 14 days might also be caused by parasitic infections such as Giardia, coeliac disease, food intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome, and other less common conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Some toddlers with chronic diarrhoea might be drinking too much fruit juice. But we don’t know what causes diarrhoea in many toddlers. This is called toddlers diarrhoea.

Symptoms of diarrhoea

If your child has diarrhoea, he’ll have large, runny, frequent or watery poo. The colour of the poo might vary from brown to green, and you might notice bits of partially broken down food in the poo. The smell can be very nasty.

Diarrhoea might be associated with tummy cramps or pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting or fever.

Diarrhoea might lead to dehydration, which can be a serious problem.

When to see your doctor about your child’s diarrhoea

It’s always a good idea to see your doctor if your child has diarrhoea, especially if your child is under three months old.

You should definitely see your doctor if:

  • your child isn’t passing urine, is pale and thin, has sunken eyes, cold hands and cold feet, is drowsy or is very cranky
  • there’s any blood in your child’s diarrhoea
  • your child can’t keep fluids down
  • your child has severe or persistent tummy pain
  • your child is losing weight.

Tests for diarrhoea

If the diarrhoea is caused by a specific virus, germ or parasite, a test of your child’s poo will show what the problem is.

If the diarrhoea is chronic or persistent, your doctor might order some blood and poo tests to look for other underlying causes.

Treatment for diarrhoea

The most important thing is to make sure that your child has enough to drink.

Give your child small amounts to drink often. It’s best to use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte®, Hydralyte™, Pedialyte® or Repalyte®. You can buy these fluids over the counter from a pharmacy. These products might come as premade liquid, powder or icy poles for freezing. Make sure that you make up the liquid carefully according to the instructions on the packet.

If you can’t get oral rehydration solution, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use one part of lemonade or juice to four parts of water. Full-strength lemonade, cordial or fruit juice might make the diarrhoea worse, so don’t give these to your child.

If you have a young breastfed baby, keep breastfeeding but feed more often. You can give your child extra oral rehydration solution between feeds. If your baby is bottle fed, give her oral rehydration fluid for the first 24 hours only and then reintroduce full-strength formula in smaller more frequent feeds. You can still offer extra oral rehydration fluids between feeds.

Your child might refuse food to start with. If your child is hungry, you can give him whatever he feels like eating. Don’t stop food for more than 24 hours.

Don’t treat your child with antidiarrhoealagents. There’s no evidence to show that these treatments work.

Your child probably doesn’t need antibiotics, but your doctor will tell you about the best treatment options for your child.

If your child is very dehydrated or can’t keep any oral fluids down, she might need fluids to be given directly into a vein through a drip or through a tube that goes up her nose and into her stomach. In this case, she’ll have to go into hospital.

For diarrhoea associated with lactose intolerance, use a lactose-free milk (unless your child is still breastfed) until the diarrhoea improves or for two weeks. After this, you can try to reintroduce usual feeds. If your baby is normally formula fed and is having problems with lactose intolerance, your doctor can advise you about which formula to choose. This condition usually sorts itself out within a few weeks as the lining of the bowel wall heals.

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