Background. We evaluated the frequency of recovery of pathogens from children with diarrhea who presented to a pediatric emergency department and characterized the associated illnesses, to develop guidelines for performing a bacterial enteric culture. Methods. We conducted a prospective cohort study of all patients with diarrhea who presented to a large regional pediatric emergency department during the period from November 1998 through October 2001. A thorough microbiologic evaluation was performed on stool specimens, and the findings were correlated with case, physician, and laboratory data. Results. A total of 1626 stool specimens were studied to detect diarrheagenic bacteria and, if there was a sufficient amount of stool, Clostridium difficile toxin (688 specimens), parasites (656 specimens), and viruses (417 specimens). One hundred seventy-six (47%) of 372 specimens that underwent complete testing yielded a bacterial pathogen (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, 39 specimens [of which 28 were serotype O157:H7]; Salmonella species, 39; Campylobacter species, 25; Shigella species, 14; and Yersinia enterocolitica, 2), a viral pathogen (rotavirus, 85 specimens; astrovirus, 27; adenovirus, 18; or rotavirus and astrovirus, 8), a diarrheagenic parasite (5 specimens); or C. difficile toxin (46 specimens). Samples from 2 patients yielded both bacterial and viral pathogens. A model to identify predictors of bacterial infection found that international travel, fever, and the passing of >10 stools in the prior 24 h were associated with the presence of a bacterial pathogen. Physician judgment regarding the need to perform a stool culture was almost as accurate as the model in predicting bacterial pathogens. Conclusions. Nearly one-half of the patients who presented to the emergency department with diarrhea had a definite or plausible pathogen in their stool specimens. We were unable to develop a model that was substantially better than physician judgment in identifying patients for whom bacterial culture would yield positive results. The unexpectedly high rate of C. difficile toxin warrants further examination.