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Diarrhea is a condition where stools become loose or watery and occur more often. A person may have cramping or lose control of bowel movements.
In general, diarrhea may be defined as passing more than 3 loose stools in 24 hours.
Diarrhea is a common side effect in children who are living with serious illnesses. It can have different causes including chemotherapy, antibiotics, and infection. In some cases, diarrhea can lead to serious health problems such as dehydration, malnutrition, and metabolic imbalances.
Ways to manage diarrhea include anti-diarrhea medicines and changes to diet. It is also important to make sure your child stays hydrated by drinking liquids or receiving IV fluids.
If diarrhea is caused by a virus or bacteria, treatment of the infection may be needed. If diarrhea is caused by treatment such as chemotherapy, your child’s care team may modify the treatment schedule until symptoms improve.
Assessment of diarrhea considers:
The care team might you to describe what your child’s stools look like using a chart. They will also evaluate other signs and symptoms such as:
Lab tests may check blood counts, electrolyte levels, and kidney function.
Stool may be tested to look for viruses or bacteria. Common sources of infection with diarrhea are:
Diarrhea due to infection may need different treatment.
The care team will also evaluate other possible reasons for diarrhea such as medicines, diet, and situational factors.
Less often, assessment of diarrhea may include imaging tests to view the gastrointestinal tract.
Diarrhea and constipation are common problems in children with serious illnesses such as cancer.
Diarrhea can be life-threatening. Possible health problems due to diarrhea include:
In some cases, chemotherapy and other treatments may be delayed until symptoms improve.
Nutrients and water are absorbed as food moves through the digestive tract. Waste is passed out of the body as stool. The intestines secrete digestive fluids and mucous to help break down and move contents.
Bacteria are also found in the digestive tract and help break down food.
Sometimes, stools become too watery if fluids are not absorbed or if secretions increase. Medicines can also change the balance of bacteria in the intestines. An increase in movement of the intestines can also cause stool to pass through more quickly.
A change or imbalance in one or more of these digestive processes can trigger diarrhea.
Factors that may lead to diarrhea in children with serious illnesses may include:
Diarrhea is a common side effect of chemotherapy. This is sometimes called chemotherapy-induced diarrhea or CID. Chemotherapy may cause diarrhea in different ways.
Chemotherapy can damage the mucous membrane lining the intestines. Certain drugs can also change the fluid balance in the intestines. Fluid may not be absorbed properly, or extra fluid or mucous may be secreted.
Chemotherapy can also interfere with absorption of nutrients or change the way digestive enzymes work in the intestines.
|Medicines with High Risk of Diarrhea||Medicines with Moderate Risk of Diarrhea|
Diarrhea can be a side effect of other common medicines used in pediatric cancer patients. This may occur for different reasons. Some medicines cause an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the stomach and intestines. Other medicines can affect the breakdown of food or how much fluid is absorbed or produced.
Medicines that may cause diarrhea include antibiotics such as:
Stool softeners, laxatives, antacids with magnesium, potassium chloride, and proton pump inhibitors may also cause diarrhea.
Radiation to the abdomen, back, or pelvis can cause diarrhea. Radiation triggers cell death in fast-growing cells, like the cells that line the intestines. This is known as radiation enteritis.
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramping, fatigue, and diarrhea. Stools may be watery or contain blood or mucous.
Radiation enteritis usually improves 2-3 weeks after treatment ends, but symptoms can last 12 weeks or longer. If your child develops radiation enteritis, they may have longer lasting diarrhea or have problems with diarrhea later in life.
Factors that increase risk for diarrhea with radiation therapy include:
Treatment of radiation-induced diarrhea includes using medications such as loperamide and octreotide.
Diarrhea can cause serious health problems. It is to work closely with your child’s care team to manage symptoms. Strategies to help treat diarrhea include anti-diarrhea medicines and changes in diet.
It is important to stay hydrated when dealing with diarrhea. If diarrhea is severe or your child can’t take enough fluids by mouth, they may need treatment for dehydration.
Possible medicines for diarrhea include loperamide (Imodium®) and antibiotics.
In special cases, atropine and octreotide can be used to treat certain types of diarrhea.
Probiotics help in some cases. But your child should only use these under a care team’s supervision.
Your child’s care team will help you find the best treatment.
Your child’s care team may suggest dietary changes including smaller meals, bland foods, and caffeine-free liquids.
Your child’s care team might also recommend the BRAT (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast). This diet is low in important nutrients, so only follow it for a few days or as recommended by the care team.
Other foods may include oats, low-sugar cereals, crackers, pasta without sauce, and soft, peeled fruits like peaches or pears. Broth-based soups with cooked vegetables and lean meats can be a good way to restart solid foods and increase fluid intake.
Some foods can make diarrhea worse. These include spicy or greasy foods, milk and dairy products, raw fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, some fruit juices, foods high in fat or sugar, and caffeine.
If diarrhea is caused by GVHD, your child may need a special diet. Talk with your child’s care team about it.
Together does not endorse any branded product mentioned in this article.
Reviewed: September 2022