Why does your child have diarrhea?
Could it be the “stomach flu,” food poisoning, or just an intolerance to something your child eat?
Common Causes of Diarrhea
While parents often quickly jump to the idea of “food poisoning,” infections are typically the most common cause of diarrhea in kids.
- viruses – rotavirus (a vaccine preventable disease), adenovirus, and norovirus
- bacteria – C. diff, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, Campylobacter jejuni, Bacillus cereus, Listeria, Cholera
- parasites – Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Cyclospora
Not all diarrhea is caused by infections though. If the diarrhea lingers for more than a few weeks or keeps coming and going, then you might consider that your child might have a lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, Celiac disease, or other non-infectious cause.
Hints of Diarrhea Causes and Risk Factors
To help figure out what might be causing your child’s diarrhea, consider these questions and share the answers with your pediatrician:
- Does your child have bloody diarrhea (sometimes a sign of a bacterial infection)?
- Is your child getting dehydrated? While that doesn’t tell you want is causing the diarrhea, it is a good sign that you need to seek medical attention.
- Does your younger child (under age 2 to 4 years) have bloody diarrhea that is becoming jelly-like and episodes of severe, colicky abdominal pain (sign of intussusception)?
- Is your child in daycare? Has anyone else recently been sick with diarrhea or vomiting?
- Has your child recently been on antibiotics (a risk for C. diff)?
- Does your toddler with diarrhea drink a lot of juice (Toddler’s diarrhea)?
- Have you recently traveled out of the country (Traveler’s diarrhea)? Did your child get sick a few days later (could be a bacterial or viral cause) or a few weeks later (parasites have longer incubation periods)?
- Has your child recently spent time on a lake or river and possibly drank untreated water (risk for Giardia infection)?
- Do you have any high risk pets, including turtles, snakes, lizards (or other reptiles); frogs, salamanders, newts (or other amphibians); chicks, chickens, ducklings, ducks, geese, and turkeys (or other poultry); mice, rats, hamsters, and guinea pigs (or other rodents); or farm animals (all can be a risk for Salmonella)?
- Have you recently visited a farm or petting zoo (risk for Salmonella and E. coli)?
- Has your child recently visited a water park or public swimming pool (risk for Cryptosporidium)?
- Does your child drink raw milk, unpasteurized juice, raw or undercooked eggs, or undercooked beef, pork, and poultry (risk for food poisoning)?
- Has your child recently eaten leftover food that had been unrefrigerated for more than two hours (risk for food poisoning)?
- Is the diarrhea worse after your child drinks a lot of milk or eats a lot of dairy (a sign of lactose intolerance)?
- Does your child have alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhea (irritable bowel syndrome)?
- In addition to chronic diarrhea, is your child irritable, with poor weight gain and other symptoms (a sign of Celiac disease)?
- Does your child also have abdominal pain or just diarrhea?
- Is your child taking any medications that might cause diarrhea as a side effect?
Once you have narrowed down the possibilities, blood and stool tests, including stool culture tests for bacteria, parasites, and viruses can sometimes help to figure out what is causing your child’s diarrhea. Keep in mind that these are usually reserved for diarrhea symptoms that are severe (bloody diarrhea, fever, weight loss, etc.) or lingering for more than a few weeks.
And remember that the most common causes of diarrhea, including food poisoning and viral infections, typically go away on their own without treatment. In fact, you can make things worse if you treat some causes of diarrhea with antibiotics, including some Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli infections.
Still don’t know what is causing your child’s diarrhea? In addition to your pediatrician, a pediatric gastroenterologist can be helpful when your child has diarrhea.
What To Know About Diarrhea
While diarrhea is common in kids and we often don’t figure out the specific cause before it goes away on its own, there are clues that can help you figure out if your child’s diarrhea is caused by a virus, bacteria, parasite, or other condition.
For More Information on Diarrhea
- CDC – Prevent the Spread of Norovirus
- FDA – Pet Turtles: Cute But Commonly Contaminated with Salmonella
- CDC – Healthy Pets Healthy People
- CDC – Hygiene-related Diseases and Chronic Diarrhea
- GI Kids – Acute Diarrhea
- GI Kids – Chronic Diarrhea
- GI Kids – Toddlers Diarrhea
- NIH – Symptoms & Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- CDC – Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses
- FDA – The Straight Poop on Kids and Diarrhea
- CDC – Diarrhea and Swimming
- Your ‘Stomach Flu’ Isn’t a Real Thing, You’ve Caught Something Much Grosser
- Article – Chronic Diarrhea: Diagnosis and Management
Last Updated on February 8, 2017 by Vincent Iannelli, MD