As all parents know, diarrhea happens. Whether it's because of a virus, allergies or something a child has eaten, most children will inevitably have a bout of the loose, watery stools that characterize the condition. Though the cramps that come along with diarrhea can be pretty painful, for the most part the complaint is relatively benign and self-limiting. The best way to treat a child's diarrhea is make sure she stays hydrated.
Contact your child's pediatrician if you think your child might have food poisoning. Some bacterias that cause food poisoning, E. coli and salmonella in particular, can be fatal to children if not treated right away. Diarrhea from food poisoning can often be accompanied by very painful stomach cramps and there may be signs of blood in the stool. Food poisoning also tends to strike in clusters and comes on within 48 hours of consuming the tainted food. If other family members or children who attend school or day care with your child are also suffering, it's a possible diagnosis.
React to funny-smelling stools. Sickly sweet smelling, watery stool accompanied by fever and vomiting is a classic sign of rotavirus, and the smell is unmistakable. In this situation, too, call your pediatrician. Rotavirus can cause quick and severe dehydration, particularly in infants and toddlers.
Avoid offering your child sports drinks, milk or yogurt while he has diarrhea. Sports drinks aren't designed to treat diarrhea-induced fluid loss and many children have difficulty processing lactose during a gastro-intestinal illness. It's better to wait until his system has a chance to replenish the lactose-digesting bacteria likely diminished by his illness.
Stay away from over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicines unless otherwise directed by a physician. Diarrhea may not be fun to deal with, but it's the body's way of ridding itself of the offending bacteria. Additionally, the drugs often contain bismuth subsalicylate, a substance similar to aspirin which, when given to children with certain illnesses, can cause a life-threatening condition known as Reye's syndrome.
Decrease the amount of juice you offer your child. Even though it's important to keep children hydrated, some juices (like apple juice) are natural laxatives and others (like orange juice) are irritating to the stomach. Drinking juice can actually make children's diarrhea worse instead of treating it.
Treat and avoid dehydration by offering your child other liquids. Over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions are the best way to replenish lost fluids and nutrients, though small sips of water will also work. Many stores carry generic versions of the solution, both in liquid and ice-pop form.
Introduce solid food slowly, only after fluids have been tolerated for three to four hours without incident. Begin with the bland "BRAT" diet--bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. You can offer other bland foods like broth or gelatin, too.
Diarrheal illnesses are typically very contagious. Avoid spreading the illness by washing your hands scrupulously (and having children do so, too) after changing dirty diapers or helping a child in the bathroom.
Call a doctor or head for the emergency room if your child is listless, her eyes are sunken, urine output has decreased or she is no longer producing tears. These are signs of serious dehydration which can very dangerous and may need to be treated with intravenous fluids.