Diarrhea is characterized by frequent, loose, watery stools. It is most commonly caused by a viral infection in children, and is called gastroenteritis. This causes the stomach and intestine cells to become sick and to slow down and even stop their normal function (absorbing fluids and nutrients). Gastroenteritis often begins with vomiting and fever. Then, after several hours, the vomiting resolves and diarrhea follows. There are other more rare causes of diarrhea, including diarrhea due to bacteria (Salmonella and Shigella), parasitic infections and milk allergy. The vast majority of the cases of diarrhea are due to common viral infections.
Dehydration results when there are excessive fluid losses from the infant or child, usually a result of vomiting or diarrhea. Dehydration is serious and should be evaluated by a physician. Signs of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth. Place your finger inside the child’s cheek and then rub your thumb and forefinger together. If it is wet, there is no need to worry about dehydration. If, however, it feels sticky, tacky or definitely dry, then dehydration may be present. A child that is drooling is not dehydrated.
- Poor urine output. Infants and children usually urinate at least once every eight hours. Decreased urine output in the presence of diarrhea may mean that dehydration is present.
- Tears. If your child is making tears when he/she cries, then there is little chance of dehydration. If there are no tears when your child cries, this could possibly indicate dehydration when taken with other symptoms outlined above.
- Lethargy (drowsiness/unconsciousness). If your child or infant is not alert or shows little interest in his/her surroundings and normal activities such as eating and playing, this may be a sign of dehydration when taken into consideration with the above signs of dehydration.
The treatment approach to diarrhea is the same as the treatment outlined in the vomiting section. The main concern with diarrhea is that dehydration (lack of fluids) may result. The goal with treatment of diarrhea is to prevent this until the intestine can recover and begin its normal function.
The routine use of medications to stop diarrhea is not recommended unless specifically prescribed by your physician. Certain types of diarrhea can be dangerous to stop with an Anti-Diarrheal medication. These particular medications work by paralyzing the intestine and not by reversing the diarrhea process. The underlying cause of the diarrhea must be treated, not masked, and this is done by diet.
Call your doctor if:
- Signs of dehydration are present.
- The diarrhea is associated with high fever over 103 to 104 degrees F. and is unresponsive to acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tempra).
- If pus or blood is noted in the stool.
- If diarrhea persists for more than three days despite diet changes listed under the section on vomiting.