Diarrhea is a condition in which bowel movements or stools become loose and watery. It’s a common problem and may be associated with other symptoms, like vomiting, weight loss, nausea, or abdominal pain. It may be present alone with no serious complications.
Diarrhea typically lasts for 2 to 3 days. You may get it a few times a year and may get it more often. It could be due to persistent infection, celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other conditions. You may also get diarrhea due to infection of bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Sometimes, digestive system disorders can also result in chronic diarrhea.
It may vary from a mild, moderate condition to a potentially severe one. If you pass stools more often but consistency is normal, this is not diarrhea. In breastfed babies too, they often pass loose and sticky stools which is normal.
How common is diarrhea?
An estimated 2 billion cases of diarrhea are reported each year all around the world. Around 1.9 million children below the age of 5 years, most probably in developing countries, die from diarrhea every year.
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea. You may feel just one of these or even more than two or a combination of all of them. Primarily, diarrheal symptoms depend on its cause. But, normally, you may experience one or more of the following:
- Loose and watery stools
- Body aches
- Abdominal pain
- A frequent urge to evacuate bowels
- A huge volume of stools
- Throwing up
If any of these signs accompany the condition, or if the diarrhea becomes chronic, it can be an indication of a more serious illness. A few more serious symptoms of diarrhea may include:
- Persistent vomiting
- Blood or mucus in your stool
- Weight loss
Dehydration is a serious problem when you experience watery stools more than 3-4 times a day and you’re not taking enough fluids content. If left untreated, it can cause several complicated problems.
When to see a doctor
Although diarrhea is usually not dangerous, it can become harmful or signal a more serious problem. Consult your doctor when you feel:
- Persistent vomiting
- Severe signs of dehydration
- Lower than usual amounts of urine, in a child, or reduced wet diapers than usual
- Rapid heart rate
- Diarrhea, if lasts more than 2 days, in case you are an adult. And for children, if it lasts more than 24 hours.
- Pus in the stool
- Severe itching in your abdomen or rectum (for adults)
- 102 degrees fever or higher
- Stools that are black and tarry if it is coming from higher up in the gastrointestinal tract
- Severe headaches
- Dry skin
Diarrhea can especially be more harmful in newborns and infants. If your children have diarrhea, do not hesitate to call a health care provider for proper treatment.
Also, it is important to seek medical attention if you have experienced diarrhea after surgery, after using antibiotics, or after spending time in the hospital. As an adult, if you lose sleep because of diarrhea, you should also talk to your doctor as soon as possible, as this is typically a sign of more severe causes.
What causes diarrhea?
You may get diarrhea as a result of several conditions or circumstances. Major causes of diarrhea include:
- Viral infections, such as rotavirus, norovirus, and viral gastroenteritis
- Parasitic infections caused by parasites, tiny organisms found in contaminated food or water
- Infections caused by bacteria
- Intolerance to food, such as lactose intolerance
- Medications like antacids, antibiotics, and cancer drugs that contain magnesium
- An unfavorable reaction to a medication
- Gallbladder or stomach surgery
- Diseases affecting the stomach, small intestine, or colon, including Crohn’s disease
Globally, acute diarrhea is caused by rotavirus, the most common cause of diarrhea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this virus is the cause of infection reporting at least 40 percent of hospitalizations in children under 5 years old. Most diarrheal deaths are caused by contaminated water supplies and insufficient sanitation all around the world.
You are more likely to experience watery stools because of food poisoning like eating contaminated food stuffs. Annually, there are approximately 48 million diarrheal illnesses, according to the CDC, which are caused by contaminated food in the United States.
Chronic diarrhea may result in a more severe condition such as, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Persistent and complicated diarrhea could be a symptom of intestinal problems or a functional bowel disorder.
What are the treatment options for diarrhea?
According to research, it has been shown that diarrhea can be treated by replacing lost fluids. You should drink more water (least six 8-ounce glasses of water each day), electrolyte replacement beverages, like sports drinks or soda without caffeine. You can also consider broth (but, without the fat), and tea with honey. Take fluids between meals instead of drinking liquids with your meals.
Treatment of diarrhea is typically based on:
- The severity of the condition and associated disease
- The frequency of the condition and related disease
- The frequency of your dehydration status
- Overall health
- Medical history
- Body’s tolerance of different procedures or medications
In most cases, if you have mild and uncomplicated diarrhea, you can treat it at home. You can use an over-the-counter product bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol® or Kaopectate®) in the form of liquids or tablets. Most frequently, you’ll feel better very quickly.
In severe cases, you may get intravenous (IV) therapy to take fluids. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection.
Over-the-counter medications are usually not used for diarrhea even if you have a fever or blood in your stool. In such cases, you should talk to your healthcare provider who may help you managing diarrhea, in case of an adult, with over-the-counter medication by taking two tablespoons of Kaopectate® or two tablespoons of Pepto-Bismol®. These are usually used after each loose stool with no more than eight doses in 24 hours.
Probiotics are also used to re-attain a healthy biome to treat diarrhea. In most of the cases, introducing probiotics can be really helpful. Always call your health care provider before starting a probiotic or any kind of supplement.
How diarrhea is prevented?
One of the most important ways to prevent diarrhea is to avoid contact with infectious agents that are causing it. Proper washing of your hands and regulating hygiene are very important. Also, when you travel to developing countries, you can take the following precautions:
- Drink only purified water, even for tooth brushing.
- Prevent ice made with tap water.
- In case, you use tap water, make sure to boil it or use iodine tablets.
- Cooked food you eat must be fully cooked and served hot.
- Do not consume unpeeled or unwashed raw fruits and vegetables.
- Consider pre-packaged foods that are usually safe (check expiration date).
- Secure hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations prior traveling, if indicated for such a region.
You can also prevent diarrhea by changing your diet. Consuming certain low-fiber foods can help make your stool more solid. Foods that can help preventing diarrhea may include:
- Chicken or turkey without the skin
- White bread
- Lean ground beef
- Rice (white)
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