Infectious diarrhea is caused by a contagious virus or bacteria as opposed to a symptomatic response to parasites or spoiled food. Like any infection, these are spread by contact with contaminated food or water, pets or fecal matter transferred from diapers or toilets to surfaces that people touch. Washing hands thoroughly and frequently is the best prevention.
Children are often at greater risk when they use public restrooms and frequent environments with many other children. Travelers to third world countries are also at risk because of the differences in hygiene sometimes found there.
Viral contagion is typically self-limited and will eventually correct itself. Diarrhea caused by some bacteria will benefit from antibiotic treatment. The key to dealing with diarrhea is to stay hydrated.
Consult a physician for emergency care with a fever of 102° F or higher, severe abdominal pain with vomiting, or refusal to take fluids. If there is blood in the mucus or stool, get emergency help. In general, consult a doctor if signs of dehydration become apparent after 12 hours, such as dry mouth, lack of urine, lethargy or dizziness.
For more information on infectious diarrhea, see the following websites:
MedlinePlus on Bacterial Gastroenteritis
Children’s Hospital Guide to Infectious Diarrhea
American Academy of Family Physicians on the Management of Infectious Diarrhea: IDSA Guideline
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