What Is Diarrhea

What Is Diarrhea

What is Diarrhea? 


Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of babies and toddlers with diarrhea; many having had diarrhea for a week or more. When a baby has diarrhea, parents naturally become concerned about hydration and weight loss. These are valid concerns. But generally, diarrhea in babies and children will not cause ill effects, apart from those extra diaper changes and having to help your child to the toilet frequently.


Diarrhea is one of the most common things I see in the emergency department and in the office. Most children with diarrhea have viral infections called gastroenteritis. Vomiting and fever may accompany diarrhea. And though it is usually benign, dehydration is, as with babies, a legitimate concern.


Diarrhea is one of the most common things I see in the emergency department and in the office. 


What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is defined as watery stools that are often more frequent than normal bowel movements.


Stomach flu

The majority of people call viral gastroenteritis the ‘stomach flu’ and know it for its contagiousness. It often travels through camps, classrooms or day care centers. Rotavirus is one of the most common types of stomach flu, though it is decreasing in frequency as infants are vaccinated against it. Outbreaks of gastroenteritis typically occur in the winter and early spring, while viruses like the Coxsackie virus usually break out during the summer months.


Signs of the flu

Children typically have:

•     Reduced appetite

•     Fever

•     Nausea

•     Vomiting

•     Weight loss

•     Risk of dehydration


I find that the best way to tell if a child is dehydrated is by checking for dry mouth, less glossy eyes, lethargy and decreased voiding. See your doctor if your child looks like this.


Causes of gastroenteritis

A variety of different viruses, bacteria and parasites can cause diarrhea. Depending on where you are in the world, there are different bugs that cause diarrhea.


No matter where, infectious gastroentiritis is most commonly acquired from person to person contact, contaminated food or water.


Infections that cause diarrhea are generally very contagious. Less than stellar hand and toilet hygiene can lead to contamination and infection of others. Someone’s hands, surfaces such as chairs, changing tables, toilets and toys can all harbor the bug. With children frequently putting their fingers in their mouths, infections are easy to acquire.


Less common causes such as celiac disease, thyroid conditions and inflammatory bowel disease also exist. If your child has recurrent or frequent diarrhea, please see your doctor.


Infections that cause diarrhea are generally very contagious. 


Bacteria that cause gastroenteritis, include:

  1. Ecoli – usually through contaminated food or water such as undercooked hamburgers. Some children will get particularly ill, with the possibility of kidney damage, called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Luckily, this is rare.
  2. Giardia – otherwise called ‘beaver fever’, it is often caught in contaminated water supplies, day care centers, aquariums, lakes and swimming pools.
  3. Salmonella – usually from undercooked eggs and chicken, most commonly in the summer (pasta salad anyone?).
  4. Campylobacter- undercooked chicken is the culprit here, also during the summer



How long is stomach flu contagious?

You can catch gastroenteritis from anyone who is vomiting or has diarrhea due to the illness. It is spread through a fecal-oral route, meaning contamination from their stool. So keep your hands clean and ensure the same for your kids!


To learn more about what to do when you have diarrhea 


Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

About Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.

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