There are numerous reasons children experience diarrhea. From viruses to certain medications, the top causes of diarrhea in children are similar to those of adults. However, the specifics differ and are important for any parent or caregiver to understand.
Occasional runny stool is completely normal in children, and is usually nothing to worry over. However, If your child’s diarrhea lasts more than a day, it can become a more serious situation. Read on to learn the common causes of diarrhea in children and what to do when it happens to your little one.
Top 5 Causes of Diarrhea in Children
Diarrhea in children is most often caused by their body’s natural immune response to an unwanted organism in their gut. This immune response can be triggered by viruses, bacteria, parasites, allergens, or certain foods or medications (details about these below). During a bout of diarrhea, your child’s body is attempting to flush out that unwanted ‘something’ and regain balance.
Viruses are a common cause of diarrhea in children, and usually last anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks. Some are accompanied by a fever, chills or stomach pain, while others aren’t. The most common types of diarrhea-causing viruses in children include rotaviruses, noroviruses, and adenoviruses (among others).
Viruses are commonly spread via human contact and contaminated food, so we recommend frequent hand washing and food rinsing.
Bacteria and Parasites
It can be hard to know if your child’s diarrhea is coming from a virus, bacteria, or parasite. If your child is also experiencing other symptoms such as bloating, cramps, greasy-looking stool or blood in the stool, there is a likely chance that a bacteria or parasite is to blame.
According to the CDC, toddlers are at higher risk for giardia, which is spread through contaminated feces and can cause severe diarrhea. Cryptosporidiosis (AKA, crypto) is another common parasite in children that causes diarrhea and is usually passed through either contaminated drinking water or (often in the case of kids) playing recreationally in and swallowing contaminated water.
Antibiotics are another leading cause of diarrhea in children. Unfortunately, they can kill too much bacteria, both the bad and the good, in the gut which can lead to diarrhea. Be sure to confirm with your healthcare provider that antibiotics are necessary and ask about ways to help restore the good bacteria and support your child’s gut health such as probiotics and colostrum.
Sweetened beverages, especially those made with high-fructose corn syrup, can lead to diarrhea in children. Research also suggests that beverages sweetened with sorbitol can cause diarrhea, more-so in children than in adults. Avoiding sweetened beverages in your child’s diet will benefit their health in many ways, so consider omitting them altogether.
Food Allergies and Intolerance
While they occur in adults, food allergies and intolerance are even more prevalent in children and can often be the cause of diarrhea. Common allergies in kids include nuts, soy, and wheat, and can lead to a long list of symptoms, diarrhea being just one.
What To Do When Diarrhea Happens
It’s important to address your child’s diarrhea quickly and safely. Children can become dehydrated and a “normal” case of diarrhea can escalate into a more serious medical issue. Because we lose important fluids and electrolytes during a bout of diarrhea, proper hydration is key – small, frequent sips of water, coconut water, and oral rehydration solutions are usually the best approach.
If your child’s diarrhea doesn’t improve after 24 hours, seek medical attention. Similarly, if at any time your child has a fever of 102 degrees or has black or tarry stools, we recommend contacting your doctor.