The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments of Diarrhea


Diarrhea, or “the runs,” is when you experience loose, watery stools and feel the urgent need to have a bowel movement multiple times a day. A few causes include infections, diseases, and food intolerances.

Diarrhea can be acute or chronic.

Acute diarrhea occurs when the condition lasts for 1 to 2 days. You might experience diarrhea due to a viral or bacterial infection you acquired via something you ate or drank.

Chronic diarrhea refers to having diarrhea on most days for longer than 3 to 4 weeks. Some common causes of chronic diarrhea include:

irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD)
conditions, such as celiac disease, that affect the absorption of certain nutrients

What causes diarrhea?
You may experience diarrhea because of several conditions or circumstances. Potential causes of diarrhea include:

viral infections including rotavirus, norovirus, and viral gastroenteritis
bacterial infections, including Salmonella and E. coli
parasitic infections
intestinal diseases
a food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance
an adverse reaction to a medication
gallbladder or stomach surgery
Rotavirus is the most common cause of acute diarrhea globally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this infection causes around 40 percent of hospitalizations in children under 5 years old. Globally, most diarrhea deaths are the result of contaminated water supplies and insufficient sanitation.

In the United States, you are more likely to develop diarrhea due to food poisoning from eating contaminated foodstuffs. According to the CDC, annually there are close to 48 million diarrheal illnesses caused by contaminated food in the United States.

Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more severe 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 disorder.

What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
The main symptoms of diarrhea are frequent loose, watery stools and a pressing urge to have a bowel movement.

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 frequent urge to evacuate your bowels
a large volume of stools

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 severe effects. The symptoms of dehydration include:
dry mucous membranes
increased heart rate
a headache
increased thirst
decreased urination
dry mouth

Diarrhea in babies and young children
Children are particularly susceptible to diarrhea and dehydration. The CDC reports that diarrhea and its complications account for around 1 in 9Trusted Source annual child deaths worldwide, making this the second leading cause of death in those under age 5.

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

What are the treatment options for diarrhea?
Research shows that the treatment for diarrhea typically requires replacing lost fluids. This means you need to drink more water or electrolyte replacement beverages, such as sports drinks.

In more severe cases, you may get fluids through intravenous (IV) 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 condition
the frequency of the diarrhea and related condition
the degree of your dehydration status
your health
your medical history
your age
your ability to tolerate different procedures or medications
expectations for improvement of your condition

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:
diet elimination 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 or severe or chronic diarrhea.

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:
asking your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave
avoiding tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce that has probably been washed with tap water while you’re on vacation
drinking bottled water only while on vacation
eating cooked food only while on vacation

Preventing the spread of viral or bacterial infections
If you have diarrhea due to a viral or bacterial infection, you can prevent transmitting the infection-causing agent 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.



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