Diarrhea is the body’s way of getting rid of germs and viruses, but it can leave your child weak and dehydrated. Find out what causes diarrhea, when you should seek medical advice and how you can prevent the spread of infection.
It can be quite distressing for both you and your child when your child has Diarrhea, as episodes of incontinence can cause both embarrassment and fear for your little one. Diarrhea can either be acute, which means that it has a sudden onset and a short duration (less than two weeks) or it can be chronic, which means that it is long-term and persistent. Fortunately, most cases of childhood Diarrhea are of the acute form and usually last only a few days.
Usually, an infection of the gut (gastroenteritis) is the common cause. This infective agent is often a virus or bacteria. Viruses that cause Diarrhea are easily spread from person to person by close contact, or when an infected person prepares food which is then eaten by others. Food poisoning is usually caused by a bacterial infection; either the bacteria itself or the toxins (poisons) that it produces. Another group of microbes called parasites can also be a cause of food poisoning. Water contaminated by bacteria or other germs is another cause of infective Diarrhea, but this form of transmission is not so common in countries that have good sanitation. There are also non-infectious causes of acute Diarrhea, such as colitis (inflammation of the gut) food intolerance and various rare disorders, but these are uncommon in children.
Symptoms can range in severity from a mild stomach upset for one or two days with slight Diarrhea to severe watery Diarrhea and stomach cramps for several days or longer. Blood or mucus can appear in the stools (faeces) with some infections. There may also be vomiting, high temperature (fever), headache and aching limbs and joints. Usually the most serious symptoms are seen when the Diarrhea causes dehydration.
Diarrhea and vomiting can deplete a child’s levels of fluid in the body and lead to dehydration, which is potentially very serious. Mild dehydration is common and is usually easily reversed by ensuring an increased intake of fluids. Severe dehydration is potentially much more serious and can even be fatal, as the body’s organs need a certain amount of fluid to function properly. You should seek an urgent appointment with your doctor if you see the following symptoms of dehydration in your child:
Dehydration in children with acute Diarrhea is more likely to occur in those who have a severe infection, particularly if they have passed six or more Diarrhea stools and/or vomited three or more times in the previous 24 hours. It is also seen in those who may have a less severe infection but who do not drink enough fluids.
Most children with Diarrhea have mild symptoms which resole in a few days without the need for medical intervention, as their immune system is usually able to clear the infection. The important thing is to ensure that they have plenty to drink to keep them well hydrated. Occasionally, admission to hospital is needed if symptoms are severe, or if complications develop. You should seek medical advice in the following situations, or if you are in any way concerned:
If your child develops Diarrhea, you should encourage them to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, as the fluid lost in their Diarrhea (and vomiting) needs to be replaced. Fruit juices or fizzy soda drinks should be avoided, as these can make Diarrhea worse. If you have sought medical advice because you are concerned for any reason, your doctor may advise rehydration drinks, which provide a perfect balance of water, salts, and sugar. These are available in sachets from pharmacies and on prescription. You should not attempt to use home-made salt/sugar drinks, as the ratio and quantities of salt and sugar need to be precise. If your child is vomiting when you are trying to give them fluids, you should wait 5-10 minutes and then try again, but with smaller sips. If they are persistently unable to keep fluids down or you suspect that your child is becoming dehydrated, you should seek medical advice urgently. They may require intravenous fluids in the form of a ‘drip’ which will need to be administered in a hospital setting.
Medication is not usually needed to treat Diarrhea in children. You should not give children medication to prevent Diarrhea unless a doctor has said that it is okay, as many such medicines slow down the motility of the gut and although this may reduce the episodes of Diarrhea, it can also prevent the organisms that cause it from being expelled from the body, allowing them to multiply even further in the gut.
Diarrheal infections are highly communicable and can be very easily passed from one person to another. If your child develops Diarrhea, you should make sure that you do the following:
The most effective measure to protect against infective Diarrhea is the simple measure of washing hands regularly with soap and warm water. This is known to make a big difference to the chance of developing gut infections and Diarrhea. You should also take extra measures when travelling abroad to countries where sanitation might be poor. In these countries, you should avoid drinking tap water and putting ice cubes into your drink unless you are sure that bottled water was used to make them. You should take care at salad bars as well, as some hotels (even top ones) wash their salads in unsafe tap water.
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