Fact Sheets : Diarrhea and Vomiting in Children

There are many possible causes of diarrhea in children but the most common are viruses. This is why most children with diarrhea get better on their own, without any specific medications or antibiotics. Sometimes the diarrhea may be the only symptom, but a child may have associated symptoms such as vomiting, as well as a low-grade fever (known as gastroenteritis). In most cases the illness lasts for three to six days.

What problems can occur?

The main concern when dealing with diarrhea (and/or vomiting) is dehydration. Children, can easily become dehydrated if they lose more fluid than they take in. So taking care of them is like playing "catch-up"; with the goal being for them to drink enough to make up for the fluid lost in the diarrhea.

What is the treatment of diarrhea?

In most cases, the treatment is to give the child adequate amounts of fluid, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Recently, doctors have modified their approach to mild cases of diarrhea and usually do not change the child's diet at all. In moderate illness, specific liquids are used called "oral rehydration solutions". Never give only water to a child who is vomiting or has diarrhea. This can be dangerous. The body needs a certain (right) amount of salt and sugar, which are not in adequate amounts in water nor in watered-down juice or soft drinks. Only "oral rehydration solutions" such as Pedialyte or Infalyte contain the right amount of sugar and salt. Generally milk can be continued as long as it does not make the diarrhea worse. Breastfeeding can usually continue as well. Also, if a child is hungry, let him/her eat. Anti-diarrhea medicines should not be used in children. They are not helpful and indeed may be harmful.

What about vomiting

If a child has just vomited, parents should wait for half an hour and then begin giving fluids starting with one tablespoon. If the child keeps it down, five minutes later, one and a half tablespoons is given and so on, progressively increasing the amount each time. Should the child vomit again take a break for about 30 minutes and start the cycle over again. If the child cannot keep any fluids down, medical attention should be sought. Happily, most children will be able to keep down enough fluids and the vomiting as well as any other associated "gastroenteritis" symptoms go away on their own. If a vomiting child also has a fever and cannot keep the fever medication down, suppository acetaminophen is a very practical solution.

The signs of dehydration include:

  • Less frequent urination (less than 6 wet diapers per day, in babies)
  • No tears when crying,
  • Dry or sticky mouth,
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme thirst

When should a doctor be consulted?

  • Take your child to a doctor immediately if:
  • There are signs of dehydration, or
  • Your child is younger than six months, or
  • There is blood in the stool, or
  • There is frequent vomiting preventing him/her from drinking, or
  • The diarrhea lasts for more than 1 week, or
  • Your child complains of abdominal pain, looks or behaves unwell and/or has high fever

Can it get more serious?

In severe cases of diarrhea (and/or vomiting) and dehydration, and they are relatively rare, the only treatment is the administration of intravenous fluids in a hospital setting. Because each child is different, the specific treatment is based on the individual situation.