Vomiting and Diarrhoea

Vomiting and the passage of loose stools caused by allergy, infection of the digestive tract, or an infection elsewhere in the body

  • Most common under the age of 5
  • Lifestyle as a risk factor depends on the cause
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

Attacks of vomiting and diarrhoea occur throughout childhood but are more common under the age of 5. There are many causes, some more serious than others, and it may be useful to assess your child (see Symptom chart: Vomiting in children, and Symptom chart: Diarrhoea in children). Most cases improve within 24 hours, but prompt treatment with fluids is important because babies and young children become dehydrated rapidly.

What are the causes?

Most episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea develop as a result of a viral or bacterial infection of the digestive tract (see Gastroenteritis). Vomiting in young children may also be caused by an infection elsewhere in the body, such as the ear (see Acute otitis media in children).

Persistent diarrhoea in children aged between 1 and 3 years is often associated with inability to digest vegetables such as peas and carrots, which may be visible in the stools. This so-called “toddler’s diarrhoea” is no cause for concern if your child is otherwise well. However, persistent diarrhoea that is accompanied by failure to gain weight should always be investigated by a doctor.

Persistent vomiting with diarrhoea may be due to conditions such as cows’ milk protein allergy and sensitivity to gluten, which is found in certain foods, such as wheat, rye, and barley (see Coeliac disease).

Are there complications?

If your child has vomiting and diarrhoea that lasts for several hours, he or she may become dehydrated. The symptoms may then also include:

  • Abnormal drowsiness or irritability.

  • Passing of small amounts of concentrated urine.

  • Sunken eyes.

  • In a baby, a sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of a baby’s head).

If a child with vomiting and diarrhoea develops symptoms of dehydration, you should seek medical help immediately.

What might be done?

Most cases clear up without treatment. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter oral rehydration preparations that contain the ideal balance of salts and minerals can help to prevent dehydration. If the symptoms persist for over 24 hours or become worse, consult a doctor. He or she will assess the level of hydration and check for infection. If your child is dehydrated, admission to hospital and treatment with intravenous fluids may be necessary, and antibiotics may be prescribed if the child has a bacterial infection. If the disorder is found to be caused by food sensitivity, a modified diet will be recommended. Treatment is usually successful.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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