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Diarrhea: One Symptom with Several Causes

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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. They experience diarrhea after eating dairy products. Some people have difficulty digesting fructose, which is a natural sugar found in fruits and honey. They experience diarrhea after eating these foods. Diarrhea is a symptom of sensitivity to artificial sweeteners.

Following a cholecystectomy or gallbladder removal surgery, some individuals experience chronic diarrhea. Surgical removal of a portion of the intestines as a cancer treatment can alter the remaining intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can cause diarrhea. Diarrhea after eating a meal is a complication of bariatric surgery. (4)

Chronic diarrhea is a symptom of a functional bowel disorder. Irritable bowel syndrome is a common type of functional bowel disorder.

A functional bowel disorder is a term used to describe a problem with the function of the stomach and bowel, not with the actual organs. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two examples of inflammatory bowel disease. Inflammation of the intestinal mucosa causes persistent diarrhea.


(1) National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Diarrhea, Dec. 8, 2011

(2) Mayo Clinic: Diarrhea, Dec. 8, 2011

(3) Mayo Clinic: Diarrhea- Cancer-Related Causes and How to Cope, Dec. 8, 2011

(4) Medscape News: Complications of Bariatric Surgery: Symptoms Requiring Gastroenterologist Workup, Dec. 8, 2011

Reviewed December 14, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment1 Comments

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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