Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools or a
frequent need to have a bowel movement. It usually lasts a few days and often
disappears without any treatment. Diarrhea can be acute or chronic.
Acute diarrhea occurs when the condition lasts for one to
two days. You might experience diarrhea as a result of a viral or bacterial
infection. Other times, it could be due to food poisoning. There’s even a
condition known as traveler’s diarrhea, which happens when you have diarrhea
after being exposed to bacteria or parasites while on vacation in a developing
nation. Acute diarrhea is fairly common.
Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts for at least
four weeks. It’s usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder, such
as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
What causes diarrhea?
You may experience diarrhea as a result of a number of
conditions or circumstances. Potential causes of diarrhea include:
- a food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance
- a food allergy
- an adverse reaction to a medication
- a viral infection
- a bacterial infection
- an intestinal disease
- a parasitic infection
- gallbladder or stomach surgery
Diarrhea is also a common side effect of diarrhea.
According to the Mayo
Clinic, Rotavirus is a common
cause of childhood diarrhea. Bacterial infections due to Salmonella or Escherichia coli,
among others, are also common.
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious
condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Frequent
and severe diarrhea could be a sign of intestinal disease or a functional bowel
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea. You may
experience only one of these or any combination of all of them. The symptoms
depend on the cause. It’s common to feel one or more of the following:
- abdominal pain
- a fever
- bloody stools
- a frequent urge to evacuate your bowels
- a large volume of stools
Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these
Dehydration and diarrhea
Diarrhea can cause you to lose fluids quickly and put you at
risk for dehydration. If you don’t receive treatment for diarrhea, it can have
very serious effects. The symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mucous membranes
- increased heart rate
- a headache
- increased thirst
- decreased urination
- dry mouth
Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you think your
diarrhea is causing you to become dehydrated.
Diarrhea in babies and young children
Diarrhea is a serious condition in very young people. It can
cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day.
Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care if you see symptoms
of dehydration, such as:
- decreased urination
- dry mouth
- a headache
- a lack of tears when crying
- dry skin
- sunken eyes
- sunken fontanel
Seek immediate treatment if any of the following apply to
- They’ve had diarrhea for 24 hours or more.
- They have a fever of 102°F or higher.
- They have stools that contain blood.
- They have stools that contain pus.
- They have stools that are black and tarry.
These are all symptoms that indicate an emergency.
How is the cause of diarrhea diagnosed?
Your doctor will complete a physical examination and
consider your medical history when determining the cause of your diarrhea. They
may also request laboratory tests to examine urine and blood samples.
Additional tests your doctor may order to determine the
cause of diarrhea and other related conditions can include:
- fasting tests to determine whether a food
intolerance or allergy is the cause
- imaging tests to check for inflammation and
structural abnormalities of the intestine
- a stool culture to check for bacteria,
parasites, or signs of disease
- a colonoscopy to check the entire colon for
signs of intestinal disease
- a sigmoidoscopy to check the rectum and lower
colon for signs of intestinal disease
A colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy is especially helpful for
determining if you have an intestinal disease if you have severe or chronic
What are the treatment options for diarrhea?
The treatment for diarrhea usually requires replacing lost
fluids. This simply means you need to drink more water or electrolyte
replacement beverages, such as sports drinks. In more serious cases, you may
get fluids through intravenous therapy. If a bacterial infection is the cause
of your diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will decide your treatment based on:
- the severity of the diarrhea and related
- the frequency of the diarrhea and related
- the degree of your dehydration status
- your health
- your medical history
- your age
- your ability to tolerate different procedures or
- expectations for improvement of your condition
How can I prevent diarrhea?
Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are
actions that you can take to prevent it:
- You can avoid developing diarrhea from food
poisoning by washing the cooking and food preparation areas more frequently.
- Serve food immediately after preparing it.
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
- Always thaw frozen food in a refrigerator.
Preventing traveler’s diarrhea
You can help prevent traveler’s diarrhea by taking the
following steps when traveling to a developing nation:
- You may want to ask your doctor if you can begin
an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This will greatly reduce your risk of
developing traveler’s diarrhea.
- Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce that
has probably been washed with tap water while you’re on vacation.
- Drink bottled water only while on vacation.
- Eat cooked food only while on vacation.
Preventing the spread of viral or bacterial infections
If you have diarrhea that’s due to a viral or bacterial
infection, you can prevent spreading the infection to others by washing your
hands more frequently. When you wash your hands, use soap and wash for 20
seconds. Use hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t possible.