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What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea describes loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. It usually means more-frequent trips to the toilet and a greater volume of stool. At one time or another, every child experiences this condition.

In most cases, diarrhea lasts a couple of days. But when it persists for longer than a week, diarrhea can be a sign of a irritable bowel syndrome, or a more serious disorder like inflammatory bowel disease. A pediatric gastroenterologist can determine whether your child's diarrhea requires further testing and/or treatment. 

A number of diseases and conditions can cause diarrhea:

  • Viruses. Rotavirus is a common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Others include Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus and viral hepatitis.
  • Bacteria and parasites from contaminated food or water, such as Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium, campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli. Diarrhea caused by bacteria and parasites picked up in developing countries is often called traveler’s diarrhea.
  • Medications. Many medications can cause diarrhea. The most common are antibiotics. Antibiotics destroy both good and bad bacteria, which can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in the intestines. This sometimes leads to an infection with bacteria called Clostridium difficile, which causes diarrhea.
  • Lactose intolerance.
  • Fructose, a sugar found naturally in fruits and honey and added as a sweetener to some beverages, can cause diarrhea in people who have trouble digesting it.
  • Artificial sweeteners. Sorbitol and mannitol, artificial sweeteners found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products, can cause diarrhea in some otherwise healthy people.
  • Sugary Foods
  • Other digestive disorders. Chronic diarrhea has a number of other causes, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, malabsorption, and irritable bowel syndrome.

What are the signs and symptoms associated with diarrhea?

  • Frequent, loose, watery stools
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Blood in the stool
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration

How is diarrhea diagnosed?

Tests and procedures used to determine what’s causing your child’s diarrhea may include:

  • A physical exam
  • Review of medications, including over-the-counter drugs and vitamin supplements
  • Blood test
  • Stool test

How is diarrhea treated?

Most cases clear up on their own within a couple of days without any treatment. If symptoms persist, your child’s doctor may recommend one of the following medications or other treatments:

  • Antibiotics to address diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites. (If a virus is the cause, antibiotics won’t help.)
  • Treatment to replace fluids: Your child’s doctor likely will advise to take steps to replace the fluids and salts lost during an extended bout of diarrhea.
  • Treating underlying conditions. If your child’s diarrhea is caused by a disease or condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease, your child’s doctor will create a treatment plan to control that condition.