Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Diarrhea is a condition in which loose, watery stools are passed more often than normal.

What is going on in the body?

Diarrhea occurs when the colon or large intestine becomesirritated. This can be caused by many things, including infection, chemicaltoxins, inflammation, stress, or anxiety. The colon responds to this irritation in theseways:

  • The amount of water and mucus in the stool is increased.
  • The amount of water the colon reabsorbs from the stool is decreased.
  • The intestine empties the stools from the body more often.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Viruses cause most episodes of diarrhea. Other common causes are as follows:

  • a bacterial infection, such as traveler’s diarrhea
  • certain medicines, including antibiotics
  • diet, including an excess of fruit or fruit juice
  • inflammatory bowel disorders, such as Crohn”s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • intestinalobstruction, or blockage, in the lower part of the bowel
  • irritable bowelsyndrome, a condition in which the intestines are abnormallysensitive to stimuli

Symptoms & Signs

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

The key symptom of diarrhea is frequent bouts of loose, watery stools. Therealso may be abdominal pain and cramping. The person may have loss of appetite,nausea, and vomiting. Stools that contain blood or pus may be a sign of a moreserious health problem.

Diagnosis & Tests

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of diarrhea begins with a medical history and physicalexam. If there is severe pain or bloodin the stool, a healthcare provider will generally examine theabdomen. Occasionally, the provider may order one or more of the followingtests:

  • abdominal X-rays
  • blood tests
  • colonoscopy orsigmoidoscopy, whichinvolves placing a lighted tube into the bowel
  • cultures of stool specimens to look for certain organisms
  • urine tests

Prevention & Expectations

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Frequent hand-washing with soap and warm water is the best way to preventdiarrhea. This is especially important if a person has been exposed to anyonewho has diarrhea or has used a public restroom. It is often hard to preventdiarrhea in children who attend day care. However, frequent hand-washing at theday care center may reduce the risks of diarrhea.

To help prevent traveler’sdiarrhea it is recommended that individuals avoid contaminatedwater and food. They should also avoid uncooked vegetables or freshsalads.

Treatment & Monitoring

What are the treatments for the condition?

Dehydration is common in people with severe diarrhea. That is whygetting plenty of fluids is very important in treating diarrhea. If diarrhealeads to dehydration, intravenous fluids may be given through a tube in a veinin the hand or arm.

People who have diarrhea should tryto keep eating their normal diet. Adults and children should have regular mealsthree times a day. It is important that infants continue to drink formula ormilk. There are oral electrolyte solutions, like Pedialyte, that replace lostminerals in infants with diarrhea.

Over-the-counter medicines, such as loperamide andbismuth subsalicylate, can help control diarrhea in adults. These medicinesshould not be used for children, and should not be used for more than 2 to 3days in adults. If bacteria or certain parasites are found in the person’sstool sample, antibiotics or other prescription medicines may beused.

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea may cause:

  • bloating
  • constipation
  • drowsiness
  • nausea

Antibiotics and other medicines may cause stomachupset, allergic reactions,and rash.

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Diarrhea usually ends in 2 to 3 days, if not sooner. Generally, diarrhea thatlasts a few days is not a cause for concern. If the diarrhea lasts longer, it’simportant to contact the healthcare provider. Any new or worsening symptomsshould also be reported to the provider.

Article type: xmedgeneral