Diarrhoea in children

Symptoms and causes of diarrhoea in children

Diarrhoea is a very common problem in children younger than five. The definition of diarrhoea is three or more loose or liquid stools per day (or more frequent passage than normal).

The sudden onset of diarrhoea with or without vomiting in a previously healthy child is usually due to acute gastroenteritis. Acute gastroenteritis is an infection of the gut leading to an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines. It causes diarrhoea and may also cause symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. The symptoms normally lasts up to a week.

Diarrhoea as a side effect of antibiotic therapy is also common. Up to 40 % of children treated with broad spectrum antibiotics suffer from gastrointestinal side effects. Apart from diarrhoea symptoms include nausea, vomiting, bloating and stomach pain. Antibiotics disrupt the balance of our gut microbiome, and this imbalance can persist for a long time.

Dehydration – the main risk of acute gastroenteritis

The main risk of acute gastroenteritis in infants and children is dehydration. Dehydration means lack of fluids in the body and occurs when you loose more fluid than you take in. When the child has diarrhoea the intestine can not absorb water and salts in a proper way. Vomiting leads to additional loss of fluid. Infants and small children with diarrhoea may worsen quickly if they get dehydrated.

Pay attention to how your child feels and behaves. Passivity and apathy may be signs of dehydration as well as fewer wet nappies. Consult a doctor immediately if you suspect that your child is becoming dehydrated.

How to treat diarrhoea in children

To prevent dehydration you should encourage your child to continue his or her normal diet as far as possible and, in addition, be encouraged to drink extra fluids, preferably in small and frequent sips. Fruit juices or fizzy drinks should however be avoided, as they may worsen the diarrhoea. If your child is up to six months old and is breast or bottle-fed, you may be advised to feed more often.

Oral rehydration solution is regarded as the most important treatment for acute gastroenteritis. It provides a perfect balance of water, salts and sugar, which helps the body to better absorb the water. Clinical studies have shown that certain probiotics can help infants and children with acute gastroenteritis recover faster from diarrhoea and vomiting.

Give the oral rehydration solution often and in small portions, preferably by a teaspoon, to avoid vomiting. If the child still vomits, wait five to ten minutes before you try again. Switch to regular diet when the child’s appetite and thirst return and feed often and in small portions. As long as your child gets better, it is not dangerous to have loose stools for another few days. Nutrients will be absorbed by the intestines anyway. Antibiotics should not be given routinely, but in some cases an antibiotic or other treatments are necessary, depending on the cause of the infection. Always consult a doctor before taking any prescription drugs.