Both diarrhea and vomiting are common in children, though diarrhea alone is less worrying than vomiting as it is less likely to lead to severe dehydration as the child will still be able to drink. Diarrhea can be identified when the stools are different from your child’s usual stool pattern, in that it is more frequent or more watery.
When diarrhea is coupled with vomiting or if the diarrhea is in large amounts or very frequent, the risk of severe dehydration will be higher, and parents should seek medical attention.
Vomiting is a very common yet non-specific symptom in children. There can be many causes behind your child’s vomiting episode, and there are many causes, ranging from common and self-limiting ones, to very serious life-threatening ones.
Vomiting is most commonly caused by a virus infection of the digestive system, also known as viral gastroenteritis, which often results in diarrhoea as well. Less commonly, it can also be due to a bacterial infection of the digestive system (by bacteria such as Salmonella). Depending on your child’s age and symptoms, there are many other possible causes of vomiting, including gastro-oesophageal reflux in infants, acute appendicitis, intestinal obstruction, meningitis/encephalitis (brain infection), brain tumour/bleeding, urinary tract infection, middle ear infection, pneumonia (lung infection), bacteremia (blood infection), toxins/poisoning, diabetic ketoacidosis, acute myocarditis etc.
It is therefore of paramount importance that your child, who is vomiting, gets a proper assessment by his/her doctor to make sure that there are no serious red flag symptoms/signs which may suggest the serious causes.
The most common cause of acute diarrhoea in children is acute gastroenteritis, most of the time caused by viruses (e.g. rotavirus, norovirus), especially in children in developed countries like Singapore. The virus is often acquired when it spreads the family or in childcare/schools.
Viral gastroenteritis is usually self-limiting, and the focus is typically on ensuring adequate hydration and taking medications to control the symptoms of diarrhoea and/or vomiting.
Bacterial gastroenteritis (e.g. Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, E coli etc) could be the cause of diarrhea if there is:
Antibiotics may be required for bacterial gastroenteritis, especially if the child is younger than 3 months old, has serious diarrhea, or is known to have a compromised immune system or prior chronic gut disease.
Diarrhea is rarely caused by parasites, and even if it happens, it usually occurs in developing countries.
Other common causes of diarrhoea include lactose intolerance (which can either be something which the child is born with, or a transient lactose intolerance occurring after a bout of viral gastroenteritis), other food intolerance, toddler’s diarrhoea, post-enteritis syndrome etc.
Less common but serious causes of prolonged diarrhoea should be considered if the diarrhoea is more than 3-4 weeks or if there are red flag signs such as persistent blood/mucus in stools, loss of weight or failure to gain weight, poor appetite/activity, persistent fevers, pallor (to suggest anaemia), significant abdominal pain causing awakening from sleep, oily stools etc. These could be a sign of malabsorption disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, Celiac disease, chronic gut infections, abdominal tumours etc.
It is important to consult a doctor to get a proper diagnosis, especially if your child shows signs of dehydration or poor oral feeding, for example:
There are also signs that could indicate that the diarrhea or vomiting is due to an illness worse than gastroenteritis, for example:
If this happens when your child is travelling with you overseas, see a doctor as soon as you can when you’re there, and consider following up with your paediatrician when you return to Singapore. Parents should also remember to enforce mealtime hygiene to prevent diarrhea, especially when travelling, for example:
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Incorporated in 2005, Singapore Medical Group (SMG) is a private specialist and primary healthcare provider with a network of more than 20 medical specialties. The Group is committed to its promise of providing patient centred medical care and experience to every individual. SMG has 35 clinics and a growing network of SMG Associates all across the island.