Mythbuster: Do You Know What to do When Your Child Has Diarrhea?

The school nurse calls, your child has just been brought down from class. Bad news. It’s diarrhea. Time to head over to school, pick up your child, and decide what to do.

While diarrhea often only lasts for a day or two, those days can be hard on children and their caregivers, in part because you don’t always know right away what caused it or how long it will last. Maybe the stomach flu is sweeping through their class? Perhaps they ate something that disagreed with them at lunch? Wondering if it’s that new medication? Is this a single incident or is the next week impacted?

You may have more questions than answers, but you do know you want your child to feel better as fast as possible. Let’s look at some common beliefs and home remedies, and see whether they hold up to scrutiny. 

Myth 1: There is no fever, so there’s nothing to worry about.

A fever is sometimes present with viral gastroenteritis (known as the stomach flu), but not always. While the stomach flu often passes on its own, knowing when to seek more immediate medical attention for your child is important.

If your child’s condition lasts for more than 24 hours and/or your child begins exhibiting symptoms of dehydration, you should contact your pediatrician. If your child's stool contains blood or pus, is black and tar-like, or your child complains of severe abdomen or rectum pain, then these are symptoms worth discussing with a medical professional.

Diarrhea caused by bacterial infection, not a virus, is treated with antibiotics. If you have reason to believe your child’s diarrhea is caused by something beyond a virus, or your child develops a fever of 102 or higher, you should seek medical attention right away.  At GoHealth Urgent Care we can help you determine if a bacterial infection is causing diarrhea or if another concern is present.

Myth 2: Stick to the "BRAT" diet to cure diarrhea.

The BRAT diet is an acronym for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Some parents believe sticking to just these four foods will cure their child’s diarrhea. 

When your child isn’t feeling well, food may be hard to keep down. BRAT foods are plain, starchy, and low in fiber, which is thought to make them “binding,” in order to help solidify stools.

When diarrhea starts, your child might not want to eat anything at all. It’s ok to wait until symptoms stop or slow down considerably before you begin to introduce foods. As long as your child stays hydrated, a skipped meal may help them feel better faster.

Once your child’s appetite returns and they are interested in eating, you can look beyond BRAT. A wide range of low fiber and high starch options are available and may sound more appealing. Watermelon, sweet potatoes, broths, oatmeal, or skinless chicken are plainer foods that can keep tummies calm while providing various nutrients your child needs to recover.

Changing diet may lessen symptoms for the duration of diarrhea but it doesn’t fix or cure the underlying cause of stomach troubles. Watch your child for other signs of illness, such as fever, sore throat, or vomiting. 

Myth 3: Sports/energy drinks will help speed recovery.

Staying hydrated is important, especially when you have diarrhea. Children are particularly at risk from dehydration. 

Water, tea (non-caffeinated or herbal), or clear broths could be the first line of hydration. They contain no added sugar, unlike sports drinks, and are a better option for children under the age of 12. Your pediatrician or pharmacist might recommend a rehydration product designed specifically for children that contain less sugar. 

To help maintain hydration, consider offering liquids in between meals, not during. Second, small sips of water frequently throughout the day may be easier for a queasy stomach.

Myth 4: Diarrhea is always caused by stomach flu or food poisoning.

Beyond a stomach bug sweeping through school, a wide range of food, illnesses, and even medications can cause diarrhea.

If you have recently traveled with your child, particularly to a backcountry area or internationally, and they begin to suffer from diarrhea, you may need to have their stool tested for certain parasites like giardia. 
Giardia is an intestinal parasite that can cause cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. It can be found all over the world in areas with poor sanitation or unsafe water, including streams and lakes, but also plumbing and pools.

Illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease present with diarrhea. If your child experiences frequent, repeated bouts of diarrhea, it may be more than a contagious illness as the culprit. 

The facts about IBS are, that highly spiced foods, like curry or foods with chili, or caffeine can trigger diarrhea. If you notice a pattern, consider limiting your child’s consumption of those items. Taken further, food sensitivities, like a dairy allergy or gluten intolerances can present with diarrhea. If your child frequently suffers from diarrhea, exploring food allergies with your health care provider may provide clarity.

Some antibiotics can cause diarrhea, so if your child develops that as a side effect, speak with your pediatrician right away about finding an alternative antibiotic.

Myth 5: Your child can return to school as soon as their symptoms stop.

Everyone’s relieved when a sick child starts to feel better. However, the end of symptoms isn’t an automatic go-back-to-school indicator.

Most health care providers recommend waiting 24 hours after the last experience of diarrhea before returning to school. This ensures your child is healthy again and prevents any unwanted spreading of the illness. Be sure to check with your school nurse, district policy, or daycare provider to see what their specific rules are surrounding your child’s return.


Remember, GoHealth Urgent Care centers are staffed seven days a week with experienced, friendly providers ready to help your child get back to health. If you need care today, just walk in or save your spot online!

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant