What are the symptoms of diarrhoea in children?


Loose, watery stools are characteristic of diarrhoeal disease, which means that fluids and electrolytes such as sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate are lost. These losses can be made worse if the child also vomits and runs a fever.

If too much fluid and too many electrolytes are lost – and these losses aren’t replenished – dehydration sets in. This further perpetuates the disease and places the child at higher risk of death, especially if proper steps towards rehydration and replenishing electrolyte levels aren’t implemented. 

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Extreme tiredness (lethargy)
  • Thirst
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Unconsciousness (fainting)
  • Sunken eyes
  • Oedema (if you pinch the skin, the “pinch” goes away slowly)  

Diarrhoeal stool contains large amounts of electrolytes. The loss of these electrolyte along with water affects the overall functioning of the body.

The electrolytes perform the following functions in the body:

  • They maintain the acid-base balance (i.e. they help keep the body’s fluids close to a neutral pH).
  • They keep the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system functioning.
  • They help to maintain the water balance in the body.
  • They assist in muscle contraction and relaxation.
  • They help the nerves in the brain and spinal cord to function.

Reviewed by Kim Hofmann, registered dietitian, BSc Medical (Honours) Nutrition and Dietetics, BSc (Honours) Psychology. August 2018.

Image credit: iStock

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