Treatment for Diarrhea in Children & Teens
Only illnesses such as colds occur more frequently during childhood than diarrhea. Often a child will develop diarrhea at the same time as, or immediately following, the start of an infection of the upper respiratory tract. In most cases, diarrhea is short-term and usually runs its course and improves without medication. Home treatment of children with short-term diarrhea is usually successful in a few days; severe cases may require a week or more until all signs and symptoms disappear.
For many mild cases of diarrhea, effective home treatment is usually sufficient to comfort your child. However, children require or can benefit from certain measures that aren’t necessary for adults.
Make sure the child drinks plenty of fluids. Fluids are most important, even if no solid food is eaten during the several days of an episode. As the frequency of stools increases, so does the need for fluids to keep up with losses. When a child is having frequent stools, a liquids-only diet is recommended. Once diarrhea begins to diminish, soft solid foods may be introduced, followed eventually by a normal diet.
Simple, clear liquids are most helpful. However, liquids like apple juice, cola drinks, and sports drinks contain too much sugar, which can exacerbate a child’s diarrhea. Plain water doesn’t replace lost minerals. Therefore, in infants and children up to 12, replace lost fluid with specially made oral rehydration drinks such as Infalyte, Naturalyte, Pedialyte, and Rehydrate. These products contain the right amount of fluid, salts, and carbohydrates to prevent dehydration.
Children older than 12 can also consume sports drinks or the home rehydration mix. Decaffeinated tea with sugar, flat (de-fizzed) soda such as ginger ale, or diluted fruit-flavored gelatin are other acceptable choices.
Infant Feeding and Diarrhea
For babies who are breastfeeding, continue regular feedings. Although breast milk contains lactose, it doesn’t appear to worsen diarrhea; some substance in the milk may actually enhance the digestion of lactose. For infants on formula, diluted versions of the formulas they are taking is satisfactory.
Here is a suggested drinking schedule indicating the minimum amounts of fluid a child should consume. (If a child balks at drinking, encourage the child to take small sips. Sucking on ice chips or licking ice that has been frozen in a paper cup may be a welcome variation.)
- Infants: 2 ounces every hour (12 ounces, or one and a half cups, every 6 hours).
- Preschool children: 4 ounces every hour (24 ounces—3 cups—every 6 hours).
- School-age children: 5 ounces every hour (30 ounces—almost 4 cups—every 6 hours).
Follow the Regular Diet
If diarrhea occurs no more than twice in 24 hours, continue the same eating patterns. Contact your physician if stools are still loose after 36 hours.
Start the BRAT Diet
If diarrhea occurs as often as once every four hours, clear liquids and the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) can be started. These bland, easily digested foods will help speed recovery. If no change in diarrhea occurs within 24 hours, consult your physician. Avoid fats, at least for several days. Fats won’t remain long enough in the intestines to be digested. While not harmful, this undigested food leads to foul-smelling bowel movements.
Protect the Sensitive Areas
Once an infant develops diarrhea, protect the diaper area with zinc oxide paste or petroleum jelly to prevent painful skin irritation. Change diapers more often, and with each change wash the child’s bottom with plain water and then rinse and pat dry with a clean towel.