Most children battle diarrhea from time to time, but the good news is that it's often caused by infections that don't last long and usually are more disruptive than dangerous. Still, it's important to know what to do to relieve and even prevent diarrhea.
CAUSES OF DIARRHEA:
Diarrhea is usually brought on by gastrointestinal (GI) infections caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites.
The specific germs that cause diarrhea can vary among geographic regions depending on their level of sanitation, economic development, and hygiene. For example, developing countries with poor sanitation or where human waste is used as fertilizer often have outbreaks of diarrhea when intestinal bacteria or parasites contaminate crops or drinking water.
In developed countries, including the United States, diarrhea outbreaks are more often linked to contaminated water supplies, person-to-person contact in places such as child-care centers, or "food poisoning" (when people get sick from improperly processed or preserved foods contaminated with bacteria).
In general, infections that cause diarrhea are highly contagious. Most cases can be spread to others for as long as someone has diarrhea, and some infections can be contagious even longer.
Diarrheal infections can be spread through:
- dirty hands
- contaminated food or water
- some pets
- direct contact with fecal matter (i.e., from dirty diapers or the toilet)
Anything that the infectious germs come in contact with can become contaminated. This includes toys, changing tables, surfaces in restrooms, even the hands of someone preparing food. Kids can become infected by touching a contaminated surface, such as a toilet or toy, and then putting their fingers in their mouths.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Symptoms typically start with crampy abdominal pain followed by diarrhea that usually lasts no more than a few days. Infections with many of the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea also can bring on other symptoms, such as:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
In cases of viral gastroenteritis, kids often develop fever and vomiting first, followed by diarrhea.
Although it's almost impossible to prevent kids from ever getting infections that cause diarrhea, here are some things to help lessen the likelihood:
- Make sure kids wash their hands well and often, especially after using the toilet and before eating. Hand washing is the most effective way to prevent diarrheal infections that are passed from person to person. Dirty hands carry infectious germs into the body when kids bite their nails, suck their thumbs, eat with their fingers, or put any part of their hands into their mouths.
- Keep bathroom surfaces clean to help prevent the spread of infectious germs.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, since foodand water also can carry infectious germs.
- Wash kitchen counters and cooking utensils thoroughly after they've been in contact with raw meat, especially poultry.
- Refrigerate meats as soon as possible after bringing them home from the supermarket, and cook them until they're no longer pink. After meals, refrigerate all leftovers as soon as possible.
- Never drink from streams, springs, or lakes unless local health authorities have certified that the water is safe for drinking. In some developing countries, it may be safer to drink only bottled water and other drinks rather than water from a tap. Also, exercise caution when buying prepared foods from street vendors, especially if no local health agency oversees their operations.
- Don't wash pet cages or bowls in the same sink that you use to prepare family meals.
- Keep pets' feeding areas (especially those of reptiles) separate from family eating areas.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
Call your doctor if your child has diarrhea and is younger than 6 months old or has:
- a severe or prolonged episode of diarrhea
- fever of 102°F or higher
- repeated vomiting, or refusal to drink fluids
- severe abdominal pain
- diarrhea that contains blood or mucus
Call the doctor immediately if your child seems to be dehydrated. Signs of dehydration include: