Diarrhea

Diarrhea

Definition

Diarrhea is a condition in which loose, watery stools are passed more often than normal.

What is going on in the body?

Diarrhea occurs when the colon or large intestine becomes irritated. This can be caused by many things, including infection, chemical toxins, inflammation, stress, or anxiety. The colon responds to this irritation in these ways:
  • The amount of water and mucus in the stool is increased.
  • The amount of water the colon reabsorbs from the stool is decreased.
  • The intestine empties the stools from the body more often.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Viruses cause most episodes of diarrhea in the U.S.
Other common causes are as follows:
  • a bacterial infection, such as traveler's diarrhea
  • certain medicines, including antibiotics
  • diet, including an excess of fruit or fruit juice
  • inflammatory bowel disorders, such as Crohn''s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • intestinal obstruction, or blockage, in the lower part of the bowel
  • irritable bowel syndrome, a condition in which the intestines are abnormally sensitive to stimuli

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Frequent hand-washing with soap and warm water is the best way to prevent diarrhea. This is especially important if a person has been exposed to anyone who has diarrhea or has used a public restroom.
It is often hard to prevent diarrhea in children who attend day care. However, frequent hand-washing at the day care center may reduce the risks of diarrhea.
To help prevent traveler's diarrhea it is recommended that individuals traveling to underdeveloped countries avoid contaminated water and food. In particular, they should avoid uncooked vegetables or fresh salads.
A person with diarrhea should never prepare food for others.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of diarrhea begins with a medical history and physical exam. If there is severe pain or blood in the stool, a healthcare professional will generally examine the abdomen.
Occasionally, the healthcare professional may order one or more of the following tests:
  • abdominal X-rays
  • blood tests
  • colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, which involves placing a lighted tube into the bowel
  • cultures of stool specimens to look for certain organisms
  • urine tests

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Dehydration is common in people with severe diarrhea. That is why replacing fluids, either by mouth or, if necessary, intravenously is very important in treating diarrhea.
People who have diarrhea should try to keep eating their normal diet. Adults and children should have regular meals three times a day. In infants, several days without milk may allow the intestine to recover faster. Oral electrolyte solutions such as Pedialyte help replace lost water and minerals in infants with diarrhea.
Over-the-counter medicines, such as loperamide (i.e., Imodium), diphenoxylate/atropine (i.e., Lomotil) and bismuth subsalicylate (i.e., Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol), can help control diarrhea in adults. These medicines should not be used for children, and should not be used for more than 2 to 3 days in adults.
If bacteria or certain parasites are found in the person's stool sample, antibiotics or other prescription medicines may be used.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea may cause:
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
Antibiotics and other medicines may cause stomach upset, allergic reactions, and rash.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Diarrhea usually ends in no more than 2 to 3 days. Generally, diarrhea that lasts a few days in an otherwise healthy person is not a cause for concern. If the diarrhea lasts longer, or is accompanied by any new or worsening symptoms, it is important to contact a healthcare professional.

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