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What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is large, runny, frequent or watery poo. It's common in children.

Diarrhoea can be:

  • short term - it usually passes in a day or two and lasts no more than two weeks
  • persistent - it lasts 2-4 weeks
  • chronic - it lasts longer than four weeks.

Symptoms of diarrhoea

If your child has diarrhoea, he'll have large, runny, frequent or watery poo. The colour of the poo might vary from brown to green, and you might notice bits of partially broken down food in the poo. The smell can be very nasty.

Other symptoms that might come with diarrhoea include stomach pain or cramps, bloating, nausea, vomiting or fever.

Diarrhoea might lead to dehydration, which can be a serious problem.

Does your child need to see a doctor about diarrhoea?

If your child is under three months old and has diarrhoea, always see your GP.

It's also a good idea to see your GP if your child:

  • has chronic diarrhoea
  • has blood in her poo
  • is losing weight.

Take your child to a hospital emergency department straight away if he has diarrhoea and:

  • he shows signs of dehydration - that is, if he isn't passing urine, is pale and thin, has sunken eyes, cold hands and cold feet, is drowsy or is very cranky
  • he can't keep fluids down and has severe stomach pain or stomach pain that won't go away
  • you're worried that he's very unwell.

You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn't seem well. Signs that your child has a serious illness that requires urgent medical attention include severe pain, drowsiness, pale or blue skin, dehydration, troubled breathing, seizures and reduced responsiveness.

Tests for diarrhoea

If the diarrhoea is caused by a specific virus, bacteria or parasite, a test of your child's poo will show what the problem is.

If the diarrhoea is chronic, your doctor might order some blood and poo tests to look for other underlying causes.

Treatment for diarrhoea

The most important thing is to make sure that your child has enough to drink.

Give your child small amounts to drink often - for example, a few mouthfuls every 15 minutes. It's best to use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte®, Hydralyte™, Pedialyte® or Repalyte®. You can buy these fluids over the counter from a pharmacy. These products might come as premade liquid, powder or icy poles for freezing. Make sure that you make up the liquid carefully according to the instructions on the packet.

If you can't get oral rehydration solution, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use one part of lemonade or juice to four parts of water. Full-strength lemonade, cordial or fruit juice might make the diarrhoea worse, so don't give these to your child.

If you have a young breastfed baby, keep breastfeeding but feed more often. You can give your child extra oral rehydration solution between feeds. If your baby is bottle fed, give her oral rehydration fluid for the first 24 hours only and then reintroduce full-strength formula in smaller more frequent feeds. You can still offer extra oral rehydration fluids between feeds.

Your child might refuse food to start with. If your child is hungry, you can give him whatever he feels like eating. Don't stop food for more than 24 hours.

Additional treatments
If your child is very dehydrated or can't keep any oral fluids down, she might need fluids to be given directly into a vein through a drip or through a tube that goes up her nose and into her stomach. In this case, she'll have to go into hospital.

If your child is older and the GP thinks your child's diarrhoea is caused by temporary lactose intolerance following gastroenteritis, the GP might suggest your child swaps to a lactose-free milk until the diarrhoea improves.

If you're breastfeeding a baby with this kind of diarrhoea, it's OK to continue to breastfeed. For formula-fed babies, your doctor will advise you about which formula to choose.

Don't treat your child with antidiarrhoeal medications. There's no evidence to show that these treatments work. Your child probably doesn't need antibiotics either, but your doctor will tell you about the best treatment options for your child.

Preventing diarrhoea

If your child has had gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, you can help prevent the spread of this infection by making sure everyone in the family washes their hands regularly and doesn't share drink bottles, cups or food utensils.

It's best to keep your child away from other children and school or child care until he's had no diarrhoea for at least 24 hours.

Causes of diarrhoea

The most common cause of short-term diarrhoea in children is gastroenteritis or 'gastro'. Your child might also get diarrhoea if she's been taking medications like antibiotics for another illness. Sometimes but not often, short-term diarrhoea is a sign of a more serious illness like appendicitis.

Sometimes following a bout of gastro, your child might get persistent diarrhoea caused by a type of temporary lactose intolerance.

Chronic diarrhoea might be caused by:

  • types of lactose intolerance
  • parasitic infections like Giardia
  • coeliac disease
  • food intolerances
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • other less common conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.

Some toddlers with chronic diarrhoea might be drinking too much fruit juice. But we don't know what causes diarrhoea in many toddlers. This is called toddlers diarrhoea.