Diarrhea is more than three loose, liquid stools in a single day. It depletes your body of fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:
Acute—occurring suddenly, and lasting briefly Chronic—long-term Recurring—occurring in recurrent episodes
If you lose too much fluid, you can become
. It is particularly dangerous for babies, young children, and elderly people.
Causes may include:
Antibiotics Magnesium-containing antacids High blood pressure medications Quinine
(episodes of diarrhea often alternate with periods of
Irritable bowel syndrome
constipation Injury to the bowel after radiation treatments for cancer
Malabsorption syndromes, such as:
Diseases of the pancreas and/or gallbladder
Inflammatory bowel diseases (
Chronic diseases, such as:
Infections, including food poisoning, such as:
Campylobacter, Clostridium difficile, Salmonella, Shigella,
, and viral hepatitis
herpes simplex virus
Factors that can increase your chance of getting diarrhea include:
to a developing country where the water and food supply may be contaminated
Having a severely weakened immune system, such as with AIDS or after an organ transplant Taking certain medications
Frequent, loose, liquid stools Abdominal pain, cramping Urgent need to defecate Blood and/or mucus in stool Fever Dehydration Nausea, vomiting Muscle aches and pains Weight loss Malnutrition
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. To determine the cause of your diarrhea, the doctor will ask questions, such as:
Does anyone else in your family have diarrhea? What kinds of food have you eaten recently? Do you drink well water? Do your children attend daycare? Have you traveled recently? Do you use laxatives? What medications do you take? Do you have any symptoms other than diarrhea (eg, fever, rash, aching joints)? What is your sexual history? Have you ever had abdominal surgery?
Tests may include:
Laboratory analysis of a stool sample Blood tests Fasting or food elimination tests Digital rectal exam—examination of the rectum with the doctor's gloved finger inserted into your rectum Flexible sigmoidoscopy
—a thin, lighted tube inserted into the rectum to examine the rectum and the lower colon.
—a thin, lighted tube inserted through the rectum and into the colon to examine the lining of the colon
—removal of a sample of colon tissue for testing. This may be performed as part of a flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy
—a series of x-rays of the upper digestive system taken after drinking a barium solution (also called barium swallow)
Upper GI Series
—insertion of fluid into the rectum that makes the lining of your colon show up on an x-ray
Barium enema Barium Enema
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A medical condition may cause diarrhea. Treating the condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.
General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:
Plain water will not replace the electrolytes lost through diarrhea. Look for sports drinks or special solutions.
Some doctors suggest that you drink only clear fluids during severe phases.
Avoid the following foods:
Very spicy foods Fatty foods Greasy foods High-fiber foods Dairy products in large amounts Caffeinated drinks Complex carbohydrates Yogurt Fruits and vegetables Lean meats
Use a hot water bottle or heating pad on your abdomen to relieve cramps and pain.
Your doctor may recommend medications, such as:
Loperamide Paregoric Psyllium or methylcellulose compounds Kaolin or pectin products Antibiotics may be indicated for certain bacterial causes of diarrhea.
, bifidobacterium) may be beneficial.
lactobacillus Zinc supplementation may be recommended in certain cases.
Diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. You may need to be hospitalized. Fluids will be delivered through an IV.
To reduce your chance of getting diarrhea:
Practice good handwashing Practice safe food preparation and food storage If you have diarrhea, don't prepare food for others
If you're traveling:
Drink bottled water Use bottled water when brushing your teeth Avoid drinks that contain ice Don't eat food purchased from street vendors Don't eat raw vegetables or fruits (all produce should be peeled and/or cooked) Make sure meats are cooked thoroughly Eat only pasteurized dairy products If you eat seafood, make sure it's very hot
Celiac Disease. American Gastroenterological Association website. Available at:
Accessed July 28, 2008.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at:
Accessed July 28, 2008.
Kleigman RM, Jensen HB, Behrman RE, Stanton BF, eds.
Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics.
18th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007.
Robinson DL, McKenzie C.
Primary Care Medicine
. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins;2000.
Last reviewed November 2008 by
Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a
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EBSCO Publishing All rights reserved.