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Chronic Diarrhea in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is chronic diarrhea?

Diarrhea is chronic when it lasts more than 4 weeks. Your child may have 3 or more episodes of diarrhea each day.

What causes chronic diarrhea?

  • Infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites
  • Trouble digesting food, such as lactose, gluten, or sorbitol
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohns disease
  • A lack of enzymes that help digest foods
  • Cystic fibrosis, a tumor, or short bowel syndrome
  • An immune system disorder, such as AIDS
  • Medicines such as laxatives, antibiotics, or chemotherapy medicine
  • Surgery or procedures on your child's stomach, liver, or bowels

What signs and symptoms may happen with chronic diarrhea?

  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement, or loss of bowel control
  • Weight loss
  • Anal irritation and inflammation

How is chronic diarrhea diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child and ask you about his or her symptoms. Tell the provider if your child has symptoms after he or she eats certain foods. Tell the provider if your child has travelled recently or been around others with the same symptoms. Your child may need the following tests:

  • Blood tests may show infection. They will also give information about your child's overall health.
  • A bowel movement sample may be sent to a lab and tested for germs that cause diarrhea.
  • An x-ray may be taken to check for problems in your child's digestive tract.
  • An endoscopy is a procedure to examine the inside of your child's esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. A flexible tube with a small light and camera on the end is used. Samples of your child's esophagus, stomach, or small intestine may be taken and tested for causes of diarrhea.
  • A colonoscopy is a procedure to examine the inside of your child's colon (large intestine). A flexible tube with a small light and camera on the end is used. Samples of your child's colon may be taken and tested for causes of diarrhea.

How is chronic diarrhea treated?

Treatment will depend on the condition causing your child's chronic diarrhea. Medicines may be given to treat an infection or stop the diarrhea. Medicines that are causing diarrhea may be stopped or changed. Your child may need to change his or her diet and avoid certain foods.

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

What can I do to manage my child's symptoms?

  • 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. You may need to change your baby's formula if it causes diarrhea. Ask your baby's healthcare provider which formula is best for him or her.
  • Give your child an oral rehydration solution (ORS) as directed. An ORS has the right amounts of water, salts, and sugar that your child needs to replace lost body fluids. You can buy an ORS at most grocery stores and pharmacies. Ask what kind of ORS your child needs and how much he or she should drink.
  • Do not give your child foods that make his or her symptoms worse. These include milk and dairy products, greasy and fatty foods, spicy foods, and caffeine. Keep a food diary to see if your child's symptoms are caused by certain foods. Bring this to your child's follow-up visits.
  • Give your child foods that are easy to digest. These include bananas, boiled potatoes, cooked carrots, cooked chicken, plain rice, and toast. You can also give your child yogurt and applesauce.
  • Tell your child to wash his or her hands often. Germs can get on your child's hands and into his or her mouth. This can lead to infections that cause diarrhea. Tell your child to use soap and water. Your child can use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available. Your child should wash his or her hands after he or she uses the bathroom or sneezes. Your child should also wash his or her hands before he or she eats or prepares food.

When should I seek immediate care?

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

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 is losing weight.
  • Your child's symptoms do not get better with treatment.
  • 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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