Diarrhoea has a number of causes and results in loose and watery stools. Acute diarrhoea usually lasts one or two days and goes away without medication. Severe acute or chronic (prolonged) diarrhoea can result in life-threatening dehydration and electrolyte balance and should be treated with electrolytes immediately.
Electrolytes are dissolved salts in bodily fluids that are necessary at normal concentrations or balance for normal bodily functions. Electrolytes can become imbalanced by abnormal fluid loss, as occurs in diarrhoea. Diarrhoea can be caused by any number of factors. These include food intolerances and food allergies, bacterial, viral or parasitic infections, reactions to medicines and intestinal diseases such as colitis, coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease. People who are lactose-intolerant can get diarrhoea from drinking milk.
In the U.S., adults experience diarrhoea about four times a year on average. Children will typically have seven to 15 episodes of diarrhoea by the age of five. Call your doctor if diarrhoea lasts for more than three days, is accompanied with several rectal or abdominal pain, blood or black stools, a fever of more than 38 degrees C in children, or signs of dehydration. Medicines designed to stop diarrhoea in adults should not be given to children unless specified by a doctor.
Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance
The fluid lost in diarrhoea takes electrolytes and water out of the body; these have to be replaced. Major electrolytes lost in diarrhoea include sodium and potassium. These are both necessary for proper function of muscle and nerve cells. Blood can also become acidic (acidosis) or, in rare instances, alkaline (alkalosis). These conditions are monitored by blood tests that check for sodium, potassium and bicarbonate concentrations.
Signs of Dehydration
Your child may be dehydrated if he has a dry mouth and tongue and produces no tears when crying. Skin will not flatten quickly when gently pinched. If your baby has not wet his diaper for more than three hours or has a high fever, he may be dehydrated. Sunken cheeks, eyes or abdomen are also signs of dehydration. Dehydration in infants and children must be treated immediately to avoid a life-threatening situation. General signs are listlessness, thirst, less-frequent urination or dark-coloured urine and fatigue.
Treating Electrolyte Imbalance
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance often go undetected in infants and children. The presence of diarrhoea indicates that the child should be offered anything you can get her to drink, with preference given to balanced electrolyte solutions, soups and broths. Sports drinks generally have more sugar than is recommended for children, but if there is nothing else available, they can be diluted with water and given to children. Electrolyte balance can be restored by the kidneys when ample water and electrolytes are given.