Diarrhea

Diarrhea – loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day – is a common problem that usually lasts a day or two and goes away on its own without any special treatment. However, prolonged diarrhea can be a sign of other problems.

Quick Facts:

Symptoms:

Symptoms of uncomplicated diarrhea include:
  • Abdominal bloating or cramps
  • Thin or loose stools
  • Watery stool
  • Sense of urgency to have a bowel movement
  • Nausea and vomiting
In addition to the symptoms described above, the symptoms of complicated diarrhea include:
  • Blood, mucus, or undigested food in the stool
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
Contact your doctor if you have prolonged diarrhea or a fever that lasts more than 24 hours. Also see your doctor promptly if vomiting prevents you from drinking liquids to replace lost fluids.

Common Causes:

The most common cause of diarrhea is a virus that infects the gut. The infection usually lasts for two days and is sometimes called "intestinal flu" or "stomach flu." Diarrhea may also be caused by:
  • Infection by bacteria (the cause of most types of food poisoning)
  • Infections by other organisms
  • Eating foods that upset the digestive system
  • Allergies to certain foods
  • Medications
  • Radiation therapy
  • Diseases of the intestines (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis)
  • Malabsorption (where the body is unable to adequately absorb certain nutrients from the diet)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Some cancers
  • Laxative abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Digestive tract surgery
  • Diabetes
  • Competitive running
Diarrhea may also follow constipation, especially for people who have irritable bowel syndrome.

Diagnosis:

Some cases of diarrhea require medical attention. Diarrhea can quickly deplete the body's supply of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) that tissues need to function. People who are very young, old, or sick may have difficulty replacing lost fluids. Also, when diarrhea lasts for several weeks or contains blood, a serious illness may be the cause. In these cases, you should contact your doctor immediately. 
  • Medical history review and review of symptoms

Common Treatments:

If you have a mild case of diarrhea, you can just let it run its course, or you can treat it with an over-the-counter medicine. Common brand names include Pepto-Bismol, Imodium A-D, and Kaopectate, which are available as liquids or tablets. Follow the instructions on the package.
 
In addition, you should drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of fluid per day. Choose fruit juice without pulp, broth, or soda (without caffeine). Chicken broth (without the fat), tea with honey, and sports drinks are also good choices. Instead of drinking liquids with your meals, drink liquids between meals. Drink small amounts of fluids frequently.

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