Acute Childhood Diarrhea

Diarrhea is an increase in the number of stools per day and/or an increase in the looseness of stools. Diarrhea is a common problem that usually only lasts a few days. Diarrhea that lasts less than one week is called “acute”.

Acute diarrhea can occur at any time of the year, but is most common during the winter months. Children less than three years old have an average of one to three episodes of acute diarrhea every year.

Dehydration is the most frequent complication of acute diarrhea. Excessive fluid losses from diarrhea can result in dehydration.

The early signs of dehydration include:

  • The baby or child has not urinated in 6 hours (babies usually have 6-8 wet diapers in 24 hours)
  • The baby or child is less active than normal or unusually sleepy
  • The urine is dark yellow and smells strong
  • The mouth is dry and sticky
  • The baby or child does not have tears

The later signs of dehydration can include any of the above noted early signs as well as:

  • A baby’s “soft spot” is sunken
  • Child’s eyes are sunken
  • The baby or child has no energy and is difficult to wake

Diarrhea is easily spread to others in the family. Some things you can do to prevent the spread of diarrhea are:

  • Encourage everyone in the family to wash their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, after handling diapers and before handling or preparing food or drinks
  • Keep all dirty diapers in a covered container away from pets and children (line the diaper container with a plastic bag and change the bag daily; wash the container daily with soap and water)
  • Diaper your baby in a place that is away from where food is being prepared or eaten
  • Clean the bathroom daily
  • If your child attends day care, you will need to know the day care’s policy on caring for sick children

Acute diarrhea stops when the body clears the infection or toxin causing it. Most viruses and bacteria do not require treatment with medicines. Most often, lab tests are not needed. If the diarrhea persists for longer than 10-14 days, you should see your doctor. Do not use anti-diarrhea medications for your child or baby unless ordered by your doctor. These medications can be dangerous.

Children with acute diarrhea should continue to eat a regular diet, unless the diarrhea is severe or accompanied by vomiting. You should talk to your doctor before changing your child’s diet. You can help prevent dehydration by making sure the child is drinking.

Call your doctor if your child has blood in the diarrhea or severe stomach pain.