Should Your Child See a Doctor?
Is this your child's symptom?
- Diarrhea is the sudden increase in the number and looseness of stools
- Diarrhea means 2 or more watery or very loose stools. Reason: 1 loose stool can be normal with changes in diet.
Causes of Acute Diarrhea
- Virus such as Rotavirus. An infection of the intestines from a virus is the most common cause.
- Bacteria such as Salmonella. Less common cause. Diarrhea often contains streaks of blood.
- Food Poisoning. This causes rapid vomiting and diarrhea within hours after eating the bad food. It is caused by toxins from germs growing in foods left out too long. Most often, symptoms go away in less than 24 hours. It often can be treated at home without the need for medical care.
- Giardia a parasite. More likely in child care center outbreaks.
- Traveler's Diarrhea. Caused by germs in food or drink. Suspect this if it follows recent foreign travel.
- Serious Causes. Most bacterial diarrhea goes away on its own. A few can cause a severe large bowel infection such as Shigella colitis. C. difficile is a serious cause that can occur after being on strong antibiotics.
- Serious Complication: Dehydration. This is the health problem where the body has lost too much fluid. See below for more on this.
Causes of Recurrent Diarrhea
- Cow's Milk Allergy. Can cause loose, slimy stools in babies. Can be blood-streaked. Starts within the first 2 months of life. Need to avoid cow's milk formulas.
- Toddler's Diarrhea. Toddlers who pass 3 to 6 sloppy stools per day. Stools may run out of the diaper. Symptoms begin at age 1. Symptoms resolve at age 3 or 4, after toilet trained. Harmless and no impact on growth. Fruit juice makes it worse. The cause is rapid transit time from stomach to anus. May develop irritable bowel syndrome IBS in adult years.
- Lactose Intolerance. Lactose is the sugar in milk. Many people cannot absorb lactose. The gut bacteria convert the lactose to gas. The main symptoms are a lot of gas, loose stools and stomach bloating. Onset usually at age 4 or 5. This most often runs in the family genetic.
- Mild: 2-5 watery stools per day
- Moderate: 6-9 watery stools per day
- Severe: 10 or more watery stools per day
- The main risk of diarrhea is dehydration.
- Loose or runny stools do not cause dehydration.
- Frequent, watery stools can cause dehydration.
Dehydration: How to Know
- Dehydration means that the body has lost too much fluid. This can happen with vomiting and/or diarrhea. A weight loss of more than 3% is needed. Mild diarrhea or mild vomiting does not cause this. Neither does a small decrease in fluid intake.
- Dehydration is the most important complication of diarrhea.
- These are signs of dehydration:
- Decreased urine no urine in more than 8 hours happens early in dehydration. So does a dark yellow color. If the urine is light straw colored, your child is not dehydrated.
- Dry tongue and inside of the mouth. Dry lips are not helpful.
- Dry eyes with decreased or absent tears
- In babies, a depressed or sunken soft spot
- Slow blood refill test: Longer than 2 seconds. First, press on the thumbnail and make it pale. Then let go. Count the seconds it takes for the nail to turn pink again. Ask your doctor to teach you how to do this test.
- Fussy, tired out or acting ill. If your child is alert, happy and playful, he or she is not dehydrated.
- A child with severe dehydration becomes too weak to stand. They can also be very dizzy when trying to stand.
Diarrhea in Breastfed Babies: How to Tell
- Diarrhea in a breastfed baby is sometimes hard to tell.
- Normal breastfed stools are loose often runny and seedy. Stools are yellow, but sometimes can be green. The green color is from bile. Runny stools can even be bordered by a water ring. These are all normal stools.
- Breastfed babies often pass more than 6 stools per day. Until 2 months of age, they may pass a stool after each feeding. But, if stools suddenly increase in number and looseness, suspect diarrhea. If it lasts for 3 or more stools, the baby has diarrhea.
- If the stools contain mucus, blood or smell bad, this points to diarrhea.
- Other clues to diarrhea are poor eating, acting sick, or a fever.
Diarrhea in Formula-Fed Infants: How to Tell
- Formula-fed babies pass 1 to 8 stools per day during the first week. Then it starts to slow down to 1 to 4 per day. This lasts until 2 months of age.
- The stools are yellow in color and thick like peanut butter.
- Suspect diarrhea if the stools suddenly increase in number or looseness. If it lasts for 3 or more stools, the baby has diarrhea.
- If the stools contain mucus, blood, or smells bad, this points to diarrhea.
- Other clues to diarrhea are poor eating, acting sick or a fever.
- After 2 months of age, most babies pass 1 or 2 stools per day. They can also pass 1 every other day. They no longer appear to have mild diarrhea.
Return to School
- Your child can go back to school after the stools are formed. The fever should also be gone. The older child can go back if the diarrhea is mild. The older child also needs to have good control over loose stools.
When to Call for Diarrhea
Call 911 Now
- Not moving
- Too weak or dizzy to stand
- You think your child has a life-threatening emergency
Call Doctor Now or Go to ER
- Dehydration suspected. No urine in over 8 hours, dark urine, very dry mouth and no tears
- Blood in the stool
- Constant stomach pain lasts over 2 hours
- Vomits clear liquids 3 or more times
- Age under 1 month with 3 or more diarrhea stools
- Severe diarrhea 10 or more watery stools in the last 24 hours
- Fever over 104° F (40° C)
- Age under 12 weeks old with fever. Caution: Do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen
- Weak immune system. Such as sickle cell disease, HIV, cancer, organ transplant, taking oral steroids
- Your child looks or acts very sick
- You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent
Call Doctor Within 24 Hours
- Moderate diarrhea 6 or more watery stools in the last 24 hours
- Stomach pains that do not go away after each diarrhea stool
- Loss of bowel control in a toilet trained child occurs 3 or more times
- Fever lasts more than 3 days
- Close contact with person or animal who has bacterial diarrhea
- Contact with reptile snake, lizard, turtle in past 14 days
- Travel to country at risk for diarrhea within past month
- You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent
Call Doctor During Office Hours
- Diarrhea lasts over 2 weeks
- Loose stools are a frequent problem
- You have other questions or concerns
Self Care at Home
- Mild diarrhea probably caused by a virus
- Diarrhea disease: how to prevent
Seattle Children’s Urgent Care Locations
If your child’s illness or injury is life-threating, call 911.
Care Advice for Diarrhea
Treatment for Mild Diarrhea
- What You Should Know About Diarrhea:
- Most diarrhea is caused by a virus.
- Bacterial infections as a cause of diarrhea are not common.
- Diarrhea is the body's way of getting rid of the germs.
- Here are some tips on how to keep ahead of the fluid losses.
- Mild Diarrhea - Normal Diet:
- Keep on a normal diet.
- Eat more starchy foods such as cereal, crackers, rice.
- Drink more fluids. Formula and/or milk are good choices for this illness.
- Do not use fruit juices or soft drinks. Reason: They make diarrhea worse.
- Formula-Fed Babies With Frequent, Watery Diarrhea: Start Oral Rehydration Solutions ORS.
- ORS is a special fluid that can help your child stay hydrated. You can use Pedialyte or the store brand. It can be bought in food or drug stores.
- Start ORS for frequent, watery diarrhea. Note: Formula is fine for mild diarrhea.
- Use ORS alone for 4 to 6 hours to prevent dehydration. Offer as much of it as your child will drink.
- If you don't have ORS, use formula mixed normally until you can get some. Offer as much formula as your child will take.
- Do not use Jello water, sports drinks, or fruit juice. Reason: They make diarrhea worse.
- Going Back to Formula:
- Go back to formula by 6 hours at the latest. Reason: Your baby needs the calories.
- Use formula mixed the normal way. Reason: It contains plenty of water.
- Offer the formula more often than you normally do.
- Lactose: Regular formula is fine for most diarrhea. Lactose-free formula soy formula is only needed for watery diarrhea lasting over 3 days.
- Extra ORS: Also give 2-4 ounces (60-120 ml) of ORS after every large watery stool. especially if the urine is dark.
- Solids Baby Foods:
- Babies over 4 months old: Keep on baby foods. If diarrhea is bad, start with cereals.
- Go back to a normal diet in 24 hours.
- Breastfed Infants With Frequent, Watery Diarrhea - Feed More Often:
- Keep nursing, but more often.
- Offer 2-4 ounces (60-120 ml) ORS such as Pedialyte. Give after all large watery stools especially if urine is dark. Do this in addition to breastfeeding.
- Babies over 6 months old: Keep on baby foods. If diarrhea is bad, start with cereals.
- Older Children Age over 1 year old With Frequent, Watery Diarrhea - Offer More Fluids:
- Fluids: Offer as much fluid as your child will drink. If taking solids, use water or half-strength Gatorade. If won't eat solids, give milk or formula.
- Do not use fruit juices and soft drinks. Reason: They make diarrhea worse.
- ORS such as Pedialyte is rarely needed. But, for bad diarrhea, also give 4-8 ounces (120-240 ml) of ORS. Do this after all large watery stools especially if the urine is dark.
- Solids: Starchy foods are the best. Give dried cereals, oatmeal, bread, crackers, noodles, mashed potatoes, or rice. Pretzels or salty crackers can help meet salt needs.
- Go back to a normal diet in 24 hours.
- Probiotics are healthy bacteria such as Lactobacilli. They can replace harmful bacteria in the GI tract.
- Age over 12 months old: Yogurt is the easiest source of probiotics. Give 2 to 6 ounces (60 to 180 ml) of yogurt. Do this twice daily. Note: Today, almost all yogurts are "active culture".
- Probiotic supplements can also be bought in health food stores.
- Fever Medicine:
- For fevers above 102° F (39° C), give an acetaminophen product such as Tylenol.
- Another choice is an ibuprofen product such as Advil.
- Note: Fevers less than 102° F (39° C) are important for fighting infections.
- For all fevers: Keep your child well hydrated. Give lots of cold fluids.
- Diaper Rash - Prevention:
- Wash buttocks after each stool to prevent a bad diaper rash.
- To protect the skin, use an ointment such as Vaseline or Desitin. Put it on the skin around the anus.
- Return to School:
- Your child can go back to school after the stools are formed.
- The fever should also be gone.
- The older child can go back if the diarrhea is mild.
- The older child also needs to have good control over loose stools.
- What to Expect:
- Viral diarrhea lasts 5-14 days.
- Severe diarrhea only occurs on the first 1 or 2 days. But, loose stools can last for 1 to 2 weeks.
- Call Your Doctor If:
- Signs of dehydration occur
- Diarrhea lasts over 2 weeks
- You think your child needs to be seen
- Your child becomes worse
Preventing Diarrhea Disease
- Safety Tips in All Countries:
- Hand washing is the key to preventing the spread of infections.
- Always wash the hands before eating, feeding or handling young children or cooking.
- Always wash the hands after any contact with vomit or stools.
- Wash the hands after using the toilet or changing diapers. Help young children wash their hands after using the toilet.
- Cook all poultry fully. Never serve chicken that is still pink inside. Reason: Undercooked poultry is a common cause of diarrhea in developed countries.
- Extra Safety Tips in Developing Countries:
- Drink bottled water or boiled water. Avoid tap water, ice cubes and flavored ices.
- Eat foods that have been fully cooked and that are still hot.
- Dry foods such as bread are usually safe.
- Avoid salads and raw vegetables. Avoid fruits that cannot be peeled. Bananas, oranges and apples are safe. Wash your hands before peeling fruit.
- Avoid all undercooked meat and fish.
- Avoid buying foods and drinks from street vendors. Reason: This is a common cause of traveler's diarrhea.
- Formula for babies: Breastfeed if possible. If not, use premixed formula. If you prepare your own, mix the formula with bottled or boiled water.
- Feeding babies: Wash bottles, nipples, spoons and dishes with soap and water. Then sterilize them in boiling water for 5 minutes if possible.
- Brush your teeth with bottled or boiled water.
- Call Your Doctor If:
- You have other questions or concerns
And remember, contact your doctor if your child develops any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.
Last Reviewed: 09/01/2012
Last Revised: 09/01/2012
Copyright 1994-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.