Diarrhoea is large, runny, frequent or watery poo. It’s common in children.
Diarrhoea can be short term, persistent or chronic.
This type of diarrhoea usually passes in 1-2 days and lasts no more than 2 weeks.
The most common cause of short-term diarrhoea in children is gastroenteritis or ‘gastro’. Your child might also get diarrhoea if they’ve been taking medications like antibiotics for another illness. Sometimes but not often, short-term diarrhoea is a sign of a more serious illness like appendicitis.
This type of diarrhoea lasts for 2-4 weeks.
Children might sometimes get persistent diarrhoea after a bout of gastro. In this situation, the diarrhoea is caused by a type of temporary lactose intolerance.
This type of diarrhoea lasts longer than 4 weeks.
It might be caused by:
- types of lactose intolerance
- parasitic infections like Giardia
- coeliac disease
- food intolerances
- irritable bowel syndrome
- other less common conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.
Some toddlers with chronic diarrhoea might be drinking too much fruit juice.
Toddler’s diarrhoea is when young children have chronic diarrhoea, but they’re otherwise healthy and developing well. We don’t know what causes this kind of diarrhoea.
Symptoms of diarrhoea
If your child has diarrhoea, they’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.
Severe and long-lasting diarrhoea might lead to dehydration, which can be a serious problem. Dehydration is more likely if children also have vomiting and can’t keep fluids down.
Does your child need to see a doctor about diarrhoea?
If your child is under 6 months old and has diarrhoea, always see your GP.
It’s also a good idea to see your GP if your child:
- has persistent or chronic diarrhoea
- has blood in their poo
- is losing weight.
Take your child to a hospital emergency department straight away if they have diarrhoea and they:
- show signs of dehydration – they aren’t passing urine, look pale and thin, have sunken eyes, cold hands and cold feet, are drowsy or are very cranky
- can’t keep fluids down and have severe stomach pain or stomach pain that won’t go away
- show signs of being very unwell.
You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn’t seem well. Signs that your child has a serious illness that requires urgent medical attention include severe pain, drowsiness, pale or blue skin, dehydration, breathing difficulties, seizures and reduced responsiveness.
Tests for diarrhoea
If the diarrhoea is caused by a specific virus, bacteria or parasite, a test of your child’s poo will show what the problem is.
If the diarrhoea is chronic, 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 – for example, a few mouthfuls every 15 minutes.
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 fluid, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use 1 part of lemonade or juice to 4 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 fluid between feeds.
If your baby is bottle fed, give them 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.
Getting your child to drink
Your child might not be keen to drink. You can try to get your child drinking more by giving them drinks via a syringe or spoon, and letting them suck icy poles.
Your child might refuse food to start with. If your child is hungry, you can give them whatever they feel like eating. Don’t stop food for more than 24 hours.
If your child is very dehydrated or can’t keep any oral fluids down, they might need fluids to be given directly into a vein through a drip or through a tube that goes up their nose and into their stomach. In this case, your child will have to go into hospital.
If your GP thinks your child’s diarrhoea is caused by temporary lactose intolerance following gastroenteritis, the GP might suggest your child swaps to a lactose-free milk until the diarrhoea improves.
If you’re breastfeeding a baby with this kind of diarrhoea, it’s OK to keep breastfeeding. For formula-fed babies, your doctor will advise you about which formula to choose.
Don’t give your child antidiarrhoea medicines. There’s no evidence to show that these medicines work. Your doctor or pharmacist will tell you about the best treatment options for your child.
If your child has had gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, you can help prevent the spread of this infection by making sure everyone in the family washes their hands regularly and doesn’t share drink bottles, cups or food utensils.
It’s best to keep your child away from other children and school or child care until they’ve had no diarrhoea for at least 24 hours.