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Acute Diarrhea in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 1, 2023.

What do I need to know about acute diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea starts quickly and lasts a short time, usually 1 to 3 days. It can last up to 2 weeks.

What causes acute diarrhea?

  • Bacteria such as E coli or salmonella
  • Viruses such as rotavirus or norovirus
  • A parasite, such as giardia
  • Medicines, such as laxatives, antacids, or antibiotics
  • Contaminated food, such as meat that is undercooked, or food grown in contaminated soil
  • Contaminated water, such as water from a stream or untreated drinking water
  • An allergy to lactose, soy, or gluten
  • Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation
  • Other infections such as an ear infection or urinary tract infection

What other signs and symptoms may happen with acute diarrhea?

Your child may have several loose bowel movements throughout the day. He or she may also have any of the following:

  • A rash
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Symptoms of dehydration such as dry mouth and lips, crying without tears, dark yellow urine, and urinating little or not at all

What does my healthcare provider need to know about my child's acute diarrhea?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's symptoms. The provider will ask what your child has eaten recently and if he or she has traveled. Tell the provider what medicines your child uses or if he or she has been around anyone who is sick. The provider may check your child for signs of dehydration.

How is acute diarrhea treated?

Acute diarrhea usually gets better without treatment. Medicines may be given to treat an infection caused by bacteria or parasites. Do not give your child over-the-counter diarrhea medicine unless directed by his or her healthcare provider.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

How can I manage my child's acute diarrhea?

  • Give your child plenty of liquids. This will help prevent dehydration. Ask how much liquid your child should drink each day and which liquids are best for him or her. Give your baby extra breast milk or formula to prevent dehydration. If you feed your baby formula, give him or her lactose free formula while he or she is sick.
  • Give your child oral rehydration solution as directed. Oral rehydration solution (ORS) has the right amounts of water, salts, and sugar that your child needs to replace lost body fluids. Ask what kind of ORS your child needs and how much he or she should drink. You can buy an ORS at most grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Continue to feed your child regular foods. Your child can continue to eat the foods he or she normally eats. You may need to feed your child smaller amounts of food than normal. You may also need to give your child foods that he or she can tolerate. These may include rice, potatoes, and bread. It also includes fruits (bananas, melon), and well-cooked vegetables. Avoid giving your child foods that are high in fiber, fat, and sugar.

How can I help prevent acute diarrhea in my child?

  • Remind your child to wash his or her hands well and often. He or she should use soap and water. Your child should wash his or her hands after using the toilet and before he or she eats. You should wash your hands before you prepare your child's food and after you change a diaper.
  • Keep bathroom surfaces clean. This helps prevent the spread of germs that cause acute diarrhea.
  • Cook meat as directed before you feed it to your child.
    • Cook ground meat to 160°F.
    • Cook ground poultry, whole poultry, or cuts of poultry to at least 165°F. Remove the meat from heat. Let it stand for 3 minutes before you feed it to your child.
    • Cook whole cuts of meat other than poultry to at least 145°F. Remove the meat from heat. Let it stand for 3 minutes before you feed it to your child.
  • Place raw or cooked meat in the refrigerator as soon as possible. Bacteria can grow in meat that is left at room temperature too long.
  • Peel and wash fruits and vegetables before you feed them to your child. This will help remove any germs that might be on the food.
  • Wash dishes that have touched raw meat in hot water with soap. This includes cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and serving containers.
  • Ask your child's healthcare provider about the rotavirus vaccine. This vaccine helps to prevent diarrhea caused by the rotavirus.
  • Give your child filtered or treated water when you travel. If you and your child travel to countries outside of the US and Europe, make sure the drinking water is safe. If you do not know if the water is safe, you and your child should drink bottled water only. Do not put ice in your child's drinks.
  • Do not give your child raw or undercooked oysters, clams, or mussels. These foods may be contaminated and cause infection.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You cannot wake your child.
  • Your child has a seizure .

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child seems confused.
  • Your child has repeated vomiting and cannot drink any liquids.
  • Your child's bowel movements contain blood or mucus.
  • Your child cries without tears.
  • Your child's eyes look sunken in, or the soft spot on your infant's head looks sunken in.
  • Your child has severe abdominal pain.
  • Your child urinates less than usual, or his urine is dark yellow.
  • Your child has no wet diapers for 6 to 8 hours.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has a fever of 102°F (38.8°C) or higher.
  • Your child has worsening abdominal pain.
  • Your child is more irritable, fussy, or tired than usual.
  • Your child has a dry mouth and lips.
  • Your child has dry, cool skin.
  • Your child is losing weight.
  • Your child's diarrhea lasts longer than 1 to 2 weeks.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.