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What are the Most Common Causes of Chronic Diarrhea in Children?

By C. Stoliecki
Updated May 17, 2024
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While children often experience acute bouts of diarrhea, chronic diarrhea, which refers to diarrhea that persists beyond two weeks, often requires medical evaluation to determine the underlying cause. There are several possibilities. The most common causes of chronic diarrhea are viral, parasitic or bacterial infections, as well as lactose intolerance, too much juice consumption, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Many infections can cause chronic diarrhea in children. The most common of these is known as chronic gastroenteritis. During chronic gastroenteritis, a child’s stomach and the small intestine become inflamed. This occurs when specific types of viruses, bacteria, or parasites, or less commonly, toxins or medications, infect the child. In response, the body tries to rid itself of these foreign objects with diarrhea and when it is unable to do so, a chronic problem emerges.

Chronic diarrhea in children can also be caused by an underlying condition such as lactose intolerance or a milk allergy. In children with lactose intolerance, the small intestine does not make the sufficient amounts of the enzyme that is needed to digest milk properly. Children who are allergic to milk also are unable to digest it properly and diarrhea results.

Toddlers can suffer from chronic diarrhea due to overabundant juice intake. Known as toddler’s diarrhea, this commonly affects children that are six months to three years old. This type of chronic diarrhea in children is easily remedied. Parent’s can correct this problem simply by lowering juice consumption and increasing fiber and fat consumption.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a gastrointestinal condition that causes pain and bloating in the abdomen. It also causes abnormal bowel practices and can result in either constipation or diarrhea. While the cause of IBS is unknown, children with the disorder often suffer from chronic diarrhea.

Two chronic disorders, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are referred to as inflammatory bowel diseases. Both disorders result in inflammation of distinct portions of the bowel, commonly referred to as the intestines. Children with ulcerative colitis suffer from inflammation of the large intestine. Typically, the lining of the large intestine swells and ulcers are formed. When this occurs in the area of the large intestine known as the rectum, frequent diarrhea that lasts longer then two weeks results.

Crohn’s disease is similar, except that the inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease tends to penetrate beyond the lining of the bowel and into the entire depth of the bowel wall. Further, Crohn’s disease can cause swelling in the small intestine as well as portions of the large intestine and can spread to other areas of the digestive tract as well. The inflammation that characterizes inflammatory bowel disease results in chronic diarrhea in children.

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