Diarrhea is a condition that’s characterized by the appearance of
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 may be related to a viral or bacterial infection and is
sometimes the result of food poisoning. The condition commonly known as
traveler’s diarrhea occurs when you’ve been exposed to bacteria or parasites
while on vacation to developing countries.
Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts for at least four
weeks and is usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be caused by a variety of conditions or elements,
adverse reaction to a medication
- a parasitic infection
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious
condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease
(IBD). Frequent and severe diarrhea could be a sign of intestinal disease or
functional bowel disorder.
What Are the Symptoms of Diarrhea?
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea that can occur in
any combination. The symptoms depend on the cause. You may experience:
frequent urge to evacuate your bowels
Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.
Diagnosing the Cause of Diarrhea
A 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:
tests to determine whether a food intolerance or allergy is to blame
tests to check for inflammation and structural abnormalities of the intestine
culture to check for bacteria, parasites, or signs of disease
to check the entire colon for signs of intestinal disease
to check the rectum and lower colon for signs of intestinal disease
In cases of severe or chronic diarrhea, your doctor may order a
colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to determine if an underlying intestinal condition
is the cause.
Dehydration and Diarrhea
Diarrhea can cause you to lose fluids quickly and put you at risk
for dehydration. If diarrhea is left untreated, it can be very serious. The symptoms
of dehydration include:
If you think your diarrhea is causing you to become
dehydrated, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
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 (IV) therapy. If a bacterial infection is causing
your diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will decide your treatment based on:
severity and frequency of the diarrhea and related condition
degree of your dehydration status
such as your health, medical history, and age
ability to tolerate different procedures or medications
- expectations for improvement of your condition
Diarrhea in Babies and Young Children
Diarrhea is a serious condition in the very young. It can cause
severe dehydration in an infant in just one day.
Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care for the following
of dehydration, including those listed above plus a lack of tears when crying,
dry skin, sunken eyes or fontanel, sleepiness, and irritability
for 24 hours or more
- fever of 102°F or higher
that contain blood or pus
- stools that are black and tarry
Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are
actions that you can take to prevent it.
Avoid developing diarrhea from food poisoning by:
the cooking and food preparation areas more frequently
food in the refrigerator
Traveler’s diarrhea is also preventable. If you’re planning a
long vacation to a developing country, consider doing the following:
your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This
will greatly reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce likely washed with tap water while
you’re on vacation. Drink bottled water and eat cooked food only.
If you have diarrhea that was caused by a viral or bacterial
infection, take these actions to prevent spreading the infection to others:
your hands more frequently.
you wash your hands, use soap and wash for 20 seconds.
hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t possible.