Intestinal permeability was assessed with different-sized polyethylene glycols (PEG 400 and PEG 1,000) in small children with acute diarrhea. All children with acute diarrhea absorbed and excreted less PEG of all molecular sizes into the urine when compared with healthy control children (p less than 0.001). Children with acute rotavirus infection excreted significantly less PEG of all sizes than children with Shigella, Salmonella, and enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) infection (p less than 0.001-0.01), suggesting a more severe mucosal lesion caused by rotavirus. In patients with severe malnutrition there was also a significant decrease in absorption of PEGs observed. In addition, malnourished patients with rotavirus diarrhea showed a pronounced decrease of PEGs in comparison with well-nourished patients. The ratio between the recovery of a large PEG molecule, 1,074 Da, and a small molecule, 370 Da, was utilized to assess the absorption of large molecules in relation to that of smaller ones. On applying this ratio, it was noted that the intestine in children with Shigella and EPEC infection was relatively more permeable to larger molecules than in healthy controls, while in rotavirus and Salmonella infection it was less permeable to larger molecules. In this study significant differences in the permeability characteristics were observed, suggesting etiology-specific effects on the mucosal barrier.