Anyone can get diarrhea. This common problem can last a day or two, or for months or years, depending on the cause. Most people get better on their own, but diarrhea can be serious for babies. and older people if lost fluids are not replaced. Many people throughout the world die from it because of the large volume of water lost and the accompanying loss of electrolytes (sodium and potassium).
The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.
Understanding bowel movements, stool, and diarrhea
If you have diarrhea, there has been a change in your bowel movements – you pass unusually loose stools. Stool is what is left after your digestive system (stomach, small intestine, and colon) absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink. Stool passes out of the body through the rectum. If fluids are not absorbed, or if your digestive system produces extra fluids, stools will be loose and watery. Loose stools are larger than usual. People with diarrhea often have frequent bowel movements and may pass more than a quart of watery stool a day.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.
Acute versus chronic
There are two general types of diarrhea - acute diarrhea and chronic diarrhea. Acute diarrhea improves within two weeks. Chronic diarrhea lasts longer than two weeks.
What causes it?
Diarrhea is a symptom, not a disease. There are many possible causes of acute diarrhea.
A few of the more common causes include
- Viral infections (see Stomach Flu, Norovirus, or Rotavirus).
- Bacterial infections, such those involving Salmonella typhi and E. coli.
- Parasites, such as Giardia.
- Certain medical conditions like:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Celiac disease.
- Colon cancer and other tumors of the intestines.
- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
When to see your healthcare provider
Not everyone with diarrhea needs to see a healthcare provider. However, there are situations when it does make sense.
You should see your healthcare provider if any of the following is true
- You have had diarrhea for more than three days.
- You have severe pain in the abdomen or rectum.
- You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- You see blood in your stool or have black, tarry stools.
- You have signs of dehydration (see below).
- Stools containing blood, mucus, or pus.
- Watery diarrhea with repeated vomiting.
- Temperature above 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
- No improvement after 24 hours.
- Signs of dehydration:
- No wet diapers for more than three hours.
- Lack of tears when crying.
- Lack of energy.
- Frequent crying or irritability.
- Sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks.
- Listlessness or irritability.
- Dry mouth and tongue.
- Skin that does not flatten when pinched and released.
Treatment depends on the type (either acute or chronic) and what caused it.
In most cases, the only acute diarrhea treatment necessary is replacing lost fluid to prevent dehydration until symptoms improve. In some cases, medicine may be recommended. Chronic diarrhea is more challenging to treat. Depending on the cause, treatment may involve medications, such as antibiotics, or lifestyle and diet changes. Similar to acute diarrhea, chronic diarrhea treatment also involves replacing fluid and electrolytes.