Diarrhoea is one of the commonest reasons you are likely to take your child to hospital. It is passing stools that are loose. Stools may be watery, mucoid and or bloody.

What causes diarrhoea?

There are several causes of a runny tummy. Sometimes, diarrhoea in children is a symptom of another illness. Often, though, diarrhoea is just…diarrhoea. It may be caused by viruses, which happen to be the most common cause, or bacterial infections, as well as irritants to the intestinal tract which may not be infectious. Viruses and bacteria may enter your child’s mouth when he eats or drinks contaminated food or water.

Is diarrhoea a dangerous illness?

The greatest problem in diarrhoea is that your child’s body will lose water and salts. This is called dehydration. Your child may become weak, inactive, may refuse to eat or get up from bed, may pass less but more deeply coloured urine, and complain of headache and thirst. This can progress to convulsions, loss of consciousness or death if unattended to.

How can you treat your child’s diarrhoea?

Since the greatest problem in diarrhoea is loss of body water, the most important thing you need to do is to replace it. This is ideally done using Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). Mix ORS with clean water only. Once you mix it, do not use it after more than 24 hours. Some ORS satchets are to be mixed with 600 mls of water, so be sure to check from the dispenser or pharmacist, or read the package label. Give as much ORS to your child as he can tolerate. You can give it after every loose stool, or as small frequent sips if he tends to vomit. If your child does not accept ORS, you can offer coconut water, porridge, soups and plain water. Sometimes, your child may not accept plain ORS but may like a flavoured one, and that is fine.

Do not force your child to drink ORS, since force-feeding can also lead to problems.

Every child with diarrhoea should be given zinc. This may be tablets dissolved in water, or syrups. Zinc helps to reduce the period of diarrhoea and also gives some protection against subsequent episodes of diarrhoea. Sometimes, a child with diarrhoea also has a fever. If that happens, offer paracetamol.

Antibiotics are mostly not necessary in diarrhoea, but that decision is best left to the healthcare practitioner. It is unwise to buy antibiotics over the counter and administer. Aside the fact that it is mostly unnecessary, hence a waste of money, your child is exposed to drug side effects. Inappropriate antibiotic use also leads to antibiotic resistance.

What if your child vomits?

During diarrhoeal episodes, it is important to continue to feed your child, even if he is vomiting. Wait about 30 minutes after an episode of vomiting and offer a small sip of ORs. Also offer small amounts of food.

When should you go to hospital?

Your child’s diarrhoea will usually stop on its own, but you should take your child to hospital if the following occur

high temperature

vomiting so much that ORS cannot be given

other symptoms like a cough, abdominal pain, painful urination

dehydration

stools are bloody or reddish

child is crying excessively

any other symptom that worries you

If unsure, it is always better to err on the side of caution as children can become gravely ill very fast.

Should your child go to school when he has diarrhoea?

It is better to keep your child with diarrhoea away from school till he is better. This ensures proper monitoring at home, quicker diaper changes and proper administration of ORS, and may also protect his schoolmates.

Any other thing to watch for?

Children easily get a diaper rash when they have diarrhoea if frequent diaper changes are not done. After you clean your child, apply a good barrier cream like petroleum jelly before you wear the next diaper. This protects the diaper area from excessive moisture and irritants in the stools.

How can you protect your child from diarrhoea?

Appropriate breastfeeding protects your child from diarrhoea. Good hygiene too.

Diarrhoea is common, but preventable and easily managed. ORS and zinc, though inexpensive are lifesavers.

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