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What Causes Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is usually caused by an infection in the intestines and the germs that cause the infection are:  

  • Viruses (most common)  
  • Bacteria    
  • Parasites


Viral gastroenteritis (often called the “stomach flu”) is a common illness in children. It causes diarrhea and, often, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms usually last a few days, but kids (especially babies) who cannot take enough liquids may become dehydrated.      

The main virus that affects babies and young kids; and can bring on watery diarrhea is called Rotavirus. The rotavirus vaccine can protect children from this illness. Enteroviruses, like coxsackievirus, also can cause diarrhea in kids, especially during the summer months.  


Different types of bacteria can cause diarrhea, including E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Shigella. These bacteria are often responsible for cases of ‘food poisoning,’ which can cause diarrhea and vomiting within a few hours after someone is infected.  


Parasitic infections that can cause diarrhea in children include giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis.      

What Else Can Cause Diarrhea?      

Kids can sometimes get diarrhea from:  

  • A high-sugar diet (for instance, from drinking lots of juice)  
  • Food allergies
  • Lactose intolerance  
  • Problems in the intestines like celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)  

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Diarrhea?      

Kids often get crampy belly pain first, followed by diarrhea that can last 3–5 days. Other symptoms may include:    

  • Fever    
  • Loss of appetite  
  • Nausea (an uncomfortable  
  • feeling before vomiting)    
  • Vomiting    
  • Weight loss    
  • Dehydration    

How Do Doctors Find the Cause of Diarrhea?

Doctors will:      

  • Ask what the child ate most recently when symptoms began, and how often the diarrhea is happening
  • Ask specific questions about the diarrhea: Is it watery? Is there blood in the poop?    
  • Do an exam    
  • Sometimes, take a stool (poop) sample to send to a lab for This helps them find out which germ is causing the illness

How is Diarrhea Treated for Children?  

  • Viral diarrhea goes away on its own  
  • Most but not all kids with bacterial diarrhea need treatment with an antibiotic  
  • Parasites always need treatment with antiparasitic medicines    
  • Kids who are not vomiting or becoming dehydrated can continue eating and drinking or breastfeeding as usual    
  • Continuing a regular diet may even shorten the diarrhea episode    
  • You may want to serve smaller portions of food until the diarrhea ends  

“Don’t give your child an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine unless your doctor tells you to do so.”      

What if my Child is Dehydrated?      

Doctors will:      

  • For mild dehydration, doctors recommend giving oral rehydration solutions (ORS). These are available in most grocery stores and drugstores without a prescription and replace body fluids as needed. Your doctor will tell you what kind to give, how much, and for how long  
  • Kids should not be rehydrated with just water because it does not contain the right mix of sodium, potassium, and other important minerals and nutrients  
  • In some cases, kids with severe diarrhea may need to get IV fluids (given into a vein) at the hospital for a few hours to help treat the dehydration

Call the Doctor Right Away if Your Child Seems Dehydrated.      

Signs include:

  • A dry or sticky mouth
  • Few or no tears when crying  
  • Eyes that look sunken    
  • For a baby, the soft spot (fontanelle) on top of the head looks sunken
  • Peeing less or fewer wet diapers  
  • Drowsiness or dizziness

How Can Diarrhea be Prevented?      

It is almost impossible to prevent kids from ever getting diarrhea. But there are some ways to make it less likely:      

  • Hand washing is the best way to prevent diarrheal infections that pass from person to Dirty hands carry germs into the body when kids bite their nails, suck their thumbs, eat with their fingers, or put any part of their hands into their mouths  
  • Keep bathroom surfaces like sinks and toilets clean    
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating    
  • Clean kitchen counters and cooking utensils well after they have been in contact with raw meat, especially poultry  
  • Refrigerate meats as soon as possible after bringing them home. Cook them until they are no longer pink. Refrigerate all leftovers as soon as possible  
  • Never drink from streams, springs, or lakes unless local health authorities have checked that the water is safe for drinking    
  • Avoid washing pet cages or bowls in the same sink that you use to prepare, and try to keep pet feeding areas separate from family eating areas  

When Should I Call the Doctor?      

Call your doctor if your child has diarrhea and is younger than 6 months old. Also, call if your child has:  

  • Diarrhea multiple times a day or it lasts for more than 3 days
  • Repeated vomiting    
  • Cannot or will not drink fluids    
  • Severe belly pain    
  • Diarrhea that has blood in it  


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