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Diarrhea: One Symptom with Several Causes

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Diarrhea related image Photo: Getty Images

By definition, diarrhea is loose watery stools. Having diarrhea means passing loose, watery stools three or more times a day. Acute diarrhea is common. Symptoms usually last one to two days and resolve without treatment.

Diarrhea lasting more than two days indicates a more serious health problem. Diarrhea lasting more than four weeks can be a symptom of a chronic medical condition. The focus of this article is the different causes of diarrhea.

Bacterial, viral and parasitic infections are the most common causes of acute diarrhea. Normally, your colon absorbs the fluid from the food you eat. Diarrhea results when the fluid is not absorbed.

Consuming contaminated food or water leads to a bacterial infection. Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella and Escherichia coli (E. coil) are common culprits of bacterial infections.

Viral gastroenteritis, viral hepatitis, norovirus and rotavirus cause diarrhea. Rotavirus is the most common cause of acute diarrhea in children. Usually, rotavirus diarrhea resolves in three to seven days. However, problems digesting lactose can linger for up to one month or longer. (1)

Giardia lamblia is the most common cause of parasitic infections. Travelers to underdeveloped countries are at high risk for developing a parasitic infection. Parasites enter the body through the mouth or skin. (2)

Diarrhea is a common side effect of antibiotics. Antibiotics upset the normal balance of bacteria found in the intestinal tract. Without enough beneficial bacteria, exposure to the bacteria called Clostridium difficile can lead to an infection. Diarrhea and abdominal cramping are symptoms of a mild to moderate infection. In severe cases, a person can have loose, watery stools 10 to 15 times a day.

Chemotherapy medications destroy the fastest growing cells in the body. They effectively kill fast growing tumor cells. Conversely, these potent drugs attack the rapidly reproducing cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea is often a side effect of chemotherapy treatment.

Individuals with lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting lactose, which is a sugar found in milk.

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I actually learned a great deal about diarrhea and what was causing my particular problem from my cat. My outdoor cat came down with persistent diarrhea that had no explainable cause beyond the usual..came in contact with something outdoors. After visiting the vet and then doing some research at cat giardia I learned that she was infected with giardia. Since I spend a great deal of time outdoors, and have been known to sip some well water along the way, I asked the Doctor to test for the human form of the condition. I tested positive and after several days of treatment are giardia free. It's not the first time my pets have come down with a condition that explained one of mine. The last time it was ringworm. As an aside, I learned that giardia is a problem in about 15% of dog giardia cases as well.

December 15, 2011 - 8:00am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.