Nothing can slow down a child's fun – or interfere with family plans – more than a case of diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common condition that occurs when stool has too much water in it.
"The colon is designed to absorb water so that the stool has form and consistency. At times, the stool absorbs too much water, resulting in diarrhea,” explains Lauren Lazar, M.D., Pediatric Gastroenterologist with Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "If your child has a loose or liquid stool at least three or more times per day, it's probably diarrhea.”
The best treatment for your child's diarrhea may depend on its cause, but there are ways to provide relief from diarrhea symptoms. Learn how to treat diarrhea in kids, including advice on anti-diarrheal medicines, home remedies and the best foods to give your child.
What can cause diarrhea in kids?
Usually, when children get diarrhea, it's considered "acute,” meaning it lasts from a few days up to a week. The most common cause of acute diarrhea is some sort of infection, whether viral, bacterial or parasitic.
Beyond stomach bugs, diarrhea in kids can also be triggered by other issues, including:
- Food allergies
- Lactose intolerance
- Eating or drinking too much sugar or artificial sweetener
- Certain antibiotic medications
Chronic diarrhea is diarrhea that lasts longer than 2-4 weeks and is less common. Like acute diarrhea, it can be caused by a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection. Chronic diarrhea might also be triggered by underlying inflammation in the body, genetic or autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, or functional GI disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.
What can I give my child to stop diarrhea?
Usually, medicine is not necessary to treat diarrhea in kids. In most cases, acute infectious diarrhea will stop when the body clears out the infection.
"Diarrhea is like a cough when you have a cold. Your gut is trying to get the bad stuff out,” explains Dr. Lazar. "If you slow down the gut with an anti-diarrheal medicine during infectious diarrhea, you're keeping the infection inside.”
If your child's diarrhea lasts more than a few days, check with your pediatrician to determine the cause and best treatment. For chronic diarrhea, your doctor might suggest a change of diet, medication or other ongoing treatment.
Information about diarrhea medicine for kids
- Generally, antibiotics are not used to treat infectious diarrhea in children.
- Always check with your doctor before giving your child over-the-counter diarrhea medications such as Imodium and Pepto-Bismol.
- For some types of infectious diarrhea, probiotics may be helpful. You can purchase probiotics over the counter in liquid and pill form. Make sure to buy the version that is "for children.” Check with your doctor before using probiotics if your child is under age 3.
- Do not give any type of medication to children under age 3 without first consulting your physician.
What are home remedies for diarrhea in kids?
There is no one specific food, drink or home remedy that will stop your child's diarrhea. The best treatment for your child's diarrhea is supportive care. To provide relief from diarrhea symptoms, focus on:
- Keeping your child hydrated
- Offering a variety of nutritious foods
- Identifying triggers or problem foods
"With diarrhea, the body loses salts and electrolytes, so it's very important to help your child stay hydrated,” says Dr. Lazar. "Avoid juice and other sugary beverages.”
To keep a child with diarrhea hydrated, offer plenty of fluids, such as:
- Broth or soup
- Pediatric electrolyte solutions in liquid or freezer pop form
- Sports drinks, such as Gatorade or Powerade (choose low-sugar varieties)
What should you feed a child who has diarrhea?
If your child has diarrhea, it's important to feed them a healthy, well-balanced diet in addition to plenty of fluids. In the past, doctors suggested the "BRAT” diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) as a solution to help children with diarrhea. Now, many doctors don't recommend it.
"The BRAT diet is restrictive and does not necessarily help stop diarrhea,” explains Dr. Lazar. "Instead, we recommend that children continue to eat a nutritious, well-rounded diet, as there is evidence that the intestine heals when the child is fed.”
For breastfed babies and children, breast milk continues to be a great option for nutrition through diarrhea. "Breast milk is easily absorbed and has more nutrients than electrolyte solutions,” says Dr. Lazar. However, parents should keep in mind that infants, especially newborns, are very susceptible to dehydration with diarrhea, so if you notice any change in a baby's stool pattern, you should contact your pediatrician.
In certain cases of diarrhea, your child's pediatrician might suggest a dairy-free or low-sugar diet – on a short-term basis. If your child's diarrhea persists, try keeping a food diary. For some people, certain foods can trigger diarrhea. For example, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome notice that high-fat, high-sugar or spicy foods tend to cause problems. For some children, gluten or dairy might trigger diarrhea. If you sense that a particular food is causing a problem for your child, write it down and discuss it with your doctor.
Will fiber or certain foods stop my child's diarrhea?
Fiber is often used to regulate bowel movements and can be used in both constipated and diarrheal states, depending on the type of fiber in the food. Pectin, a naturally occurring substance in food, can also be used to thicken stools. Certain fiber-rich foods may help slow your child's diarrhea. High-fiber foods that may help with diarrhea include:
- Apples (not the skin)
- Sweet potatoes (not the skin)
Discuss with your doctor if a fiber supplement is appropriate to give your child.
When should I take my child to the doctor for diarrhea?
Call a physician about diarrhea if your child:
- Is less than 6 months of age
- Has blood in the stool
- Shows signs of dehydration (low urine output, no tears, no spit in the mouth, excessive sleepiness or low activity level)
- Is vomiting
- Has a high fever that does not improve with fever medication
- Has abdominal distention (swelling or enlargement)
- Has a history of abdominal surgeries
- Shows symptoms lasting longer than 2-3 days
"Even if your child is staying hydrated, I would recommend going to the pediatrician if the diarrhea is not improving after two or three days – just to make sure no other evaluations are needed,” recommends Dr. Lazar.
Learn more about childhood diarrhea and gastroenterology
The Pediatric Gastroenterology Division at Children's Health offers specialized programs to help children and their families manage a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions. Learn more about our GI program, services and support we offer children and families.