What is diarrhea? Why does it happen? What are the symptoms of diarrhea? How is diarrhea treated? What are the good things about diarrhea? When should you see a doctor? You can find the answers to all these questions and much more below.
What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is loose watery stools and/or more frequent stools than normal. Diarrhea is a common digestive symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious illnesses and other medical conditions.
Diarrhea occurs in all age groups and populations. Depending on the cause, diarrhea may be short-lived (acute) and disappear relatively quickly, as in cases such as viral gastroenteritis. Diarrhea may also be continuous or recur over a longer period of time (chronic). For example , when diarrhea occurs with inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome , it can become a more serious problem and reduce quality of life.
Diarrhea associated with bloody stools , rectal bleeding, vomiting blood, dizziness, fainting, or severe pain can be a sign of a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. If you or someone you are with has any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention. You should still see a doctor if your diarrhea lasts for more than five days or if it causes you anxiety in any other way.
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be accompanied by other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or other condition. Although symptoms often affect the digestive system, they can affect other body systems as well.
Digestive symptoms that may occur along with diarrhea
Symptoms of diarrhea that affect the digestive system, including:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Abdominal swelling or bloating
- fecal incontinence
- gas problems
- mucus in stool
- undigested food in stool
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- rectal pain or burning
- Urgent need to defecate
Other symptoms that may occur along with diarrhea
Diarrhea may be accompanied by symptoms related to other body systems, including:
- body aches
- Change in consciousness level
- burnout and fatigue
- fever and chills
- flu-like symptoms
- Fast heart rate (tachycardia)
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
- weight loss
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea occurs when the fluid you take by mouth or the fluid produced in your digestive tract is not properly absorbed. Normally, the intestines absorb excess water from food during the digestive process. When food moves too quickly, the intestines cannot absorb water, resulting in loose and watery stools. Diarrhea can also occur when excess water passes from the body into the intestine.
Conditions that can cause diarrhea include infections, cancer , inflammation, abdominal trauma, congestion, antibiotics , stool softeners, and the use of certain medications such as laxatives.
Diarrhea can result from a wide variety of gastrointestinal or digestive conditions. The most common cause of diarrhea is a viral infection of the intestines called viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu or intestinal flu). Inflammatory bowel disease ( Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis ) and irritable bowel syndrome are also other common causes of diarrhea.
Causes of gastrointestinal diarrhea
Diarrhea can be caused by problems in the digestive system, including:
- Bacterial or parasitic infection of the digestive tract
- celiac disease
- digestive system surgery
- Food intolerances or allergies (lactose, fructose or gluten intolerance)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
- intestinal obstruction
- irritable bowel syndrome
- laxative use
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Tumors of the small or large intestine (benign or malignant)
- Viral gastroenteritis (stomach or intestinal flu)
Medications that cause diarrhea
Drug-induced diarrhea is a common side effect of various medications, including:
- Alzheimer’s cholinesterase inhibitors such as donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine
- Antibiotics, one of the most common causes of drug-induced diarrhea
- Chemotherapy drugs , especially those that treat bowel cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers
- Diabetes medications, especially metformin and acarbose
- Heartburn medications , including magnesium-containing antacids, H2 blockers, and PPIs (proton pump inhibitors)
- laxatives, including osmotics such as milk of magnesia, and stimulants such as bisacodyl
Other causes of diarrhea
Diarrhea can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive system, including:
- Alcohol addiction
- Eating disorders
- Cystic fibrosis
- low-fat meals
- Medication side effects (usually antibiotics)
- Nutritional deficiency (zinc)
- radiation therapy
- stress or anxiety
- tube feeding
Serious causes of diarrhea
Some potential causes of diarrhea are serious and can be life-threatening, such as:
- Dehydration (thirst)
- food poisoning
- intestinal obstruction
- perforated peptic ulcer
- Bleeding esophageal varices
- Severe abdominal trauma (such as from a blow or fall)
When should I see a doctor for diarrhea?
When to see a doctor may vary depending on your maturity level and general health.
Conditions requiring doctor control in adults
For a healthy adult, diarrhea is not usually an immediate problem. Diarrhea in adults usually goes away in about 1 to 3 days. An adult should seek medical attention if diarrhea persists for longer than three days or worsens. In some cases, however, you should seek immediate medical attention without waiting three days:
- If you are elderly, pregnant and have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or medication
- If you have recently traveled abroad
Conditions requiring doctor control in infants and children
Knowing what is normal for your baby or slightly older child can help you decide when the doctor might need it. Soft and loose stools are very common in exclusively breastfed babies. Apart from this, it is important to consult your doctor immediately for diarrhea in infants under six months of age who are not breastfed. Because children’s bodies can quickly become dehydrated. For children older than six months, toddlers and infants, you should also consult your doctor if diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours.
When is diarrhea an emergency?
Dehydration (the body’s thirst) is the biggest danger in diarrhea because it can lead to life-threatening complications. Apart from that, the following are emergencies for diarrhea:
- If you have symptoms such as excessive thirst, dark urine, urinating less than usual, headache , dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
- If your child has symptoms such as dry mouth and tongue, restlessness, no tears when crying, no wet diapers for three hours
You should also see a doctor right away for:
- if you or your child are vomiting blood or bloody substance
- If you or your child has a high fever
- If you or your child have blood or pus in the stool
- If you or your child is passing stools that are black or coat-like
- If you or your child have severe abdominal or rectal pain
How is diarrhea diagnosed?
To diagnose the cause of diarrhea, your doctor will ask a few questions about your symptoms, including:
- When did your diarrhea start?
- How often do you have loose or watery stools?
- Is your diarrhea constant or does it come and go?
- If anything, what makes your diarrhea better or worse?
- Are you experiencing other symptoms such as stomachache or nausea?
- Do you see blood on the toilet paper or in the toilet?
- Is your stool black or tarry?
- Have you recently traveled abroad or been with someone with diarrhoea?
- Which drugs are you using? Have you started any of these recently?
Your doctor will also likely perform a physical exam. After reviewing your exam and medical history, your doctor may order a few more tests or exams, including:
- blood tests to check blood cell counts and electrolytes
- Stool tests to check for blood, bacteria or parasites
- Hydrogen breath test that can detect lactose intolerance
- Fasting tests to identify food sensitivities and intolerances
- Internal examinations such as upper endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy
It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your doctor can’t find a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
How is diarrhea treated?
The goal of treating acute diarrhea is to prevent dehydration (thirst in the body). This includes drinking plenty of fluids to replenish the fluids you’ve lost and not dehydrate the body. Treatment for chronic diarrhea will depend on the underlying cause, such as food intolerance or inflammatory bowel disease.
diarrhea treatments for adults
Adults should drink as much water as possible constantly to avoid dehydration. Sports drinks, salty broths or electrolyte solutions can also be chosen instead of water to obtain electrolytes. If nausea or vomiting also occurs, you can take small sips every few minutes as tolerated.
In case of viral (virus-related) diarrhea in adults, medicines containing the following active ingredients can be taken by consulting a pharmacist or doctor:
- bismuth subsalicylate
You should not use these products if you have bloody diarrhea or a high fever. These symptoms may be signs of a bacterial or parasitic infection. Taking these drugs in such a situation may make your condition worse.
Diarrhea treatments for babies and children
Infants can be given formula or breast milk frequently to prevent dehydration. Toddlers and older children can drink water, but pediatric electrolyte solutions will work best. It is okay for children who want to drink milk to drink milk. But fruit juices that can make diarrhea worse should be limited. If your child is going to drink juice, the juice should be diluted as recommended by your doctor.
Infants and children should not use over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications.
What is good for diarrhea?
Many people lose their appetite when they have diarrhea. In this case, there is no need to force the food. As the diarrhea subsides, you’ll likely regain your appetite and return to your normal routine. In the meantime, there are some foods that you should definitely avoid and some that may make your digestion easier, and it’s good to know about them.
Foods to avoid
When you have diarrhea, certain foods and drinks can make the problem worse, such as:
- Dairy products
- Beverages containing caffeine or alcohol
- Foods and beverages containing fructose or a sweetener, such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol
- Fried or fatty foods, including fast food and processed foods like potato chips
- High-fiber foods, including fruits, fresh vegetables, beans, and whole grain products
- spicy food
- Whole grain products
Things that are good for diarrhea in adults
- Carbs such as rice, plain pasta, plain crackers, bagels, bread, toast, or boiled potatoes
- cooked vegetables
- Frozen desserts such as ice cream
- Cooked eggs
- Cooked or grilled meats
- Lean proteins such as fish or skinless poultry
You should try to return to a normal or near-normal eating pattern within 24 to 48 hours. At first, you should continue to avoid foods that can worsen diarrhea, and then gradually consume them.
Things that are good for diarrhea in babies and children
In most cases, a child or infant with diarrhea can continue with their normal eating pattern if they do not vomit. This includes formula, breast milk, and dairy products. A doctor should be reported if formula or cow’s milk makes the problem worse or triggers gas formation. The doctor may suggest a temporary change.
The foods that a child with diarrhea can eat are generally the same as what adults can eat. Your child may ask for smaller portions until they feel better, but you should not force them.
What are the complications of diarrhea?
In some cases, diarrhea can lead to serious complications, especially if it is severe, persists for a long time, or if the underlying disease or medical condition is left untreated or poorly managed. Diarrhea containing blood can cause anemia and even shock in some cases.
Other possible complications of diarrhea include:
- Dehydration (dehydration of the body)
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Not enought feeding