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Diarrhea is a condition that is classified as the appearance of loose, watery stools and/or a frequent need to go to the bathroom. It generally lasts a few days and often disappears without any treatment.
Diarrhea may be related to a viral or bacterial infection and is sometimes the result of food poisoning. The condition commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea occurs when you’ve been exposed to bacteria or parasites while on vacation to developing countries.
Chronic diarrhea lingers for a longer period of time (at least four weeks) and is usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder.
Diarrhea may be caused by a variety of conditions or elements, including:
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea. These symptoms may occur in any combination, depending on the cause of the condition. You may experience any of the following:
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of more serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. If you are experiencing frequent severe diarrhea, you may be at risk for developing an intestinal disease or functional bowel disorder. If this is the case, tell your doctor.
A doctor will complete a physical examination and consider your medical history to help diagnose the cause of your diarrhea. He or she may also request laboratory tests to examine urine and blood samples. Additional tests your doctor may order to determine the cause of diarrhea and other related conditions may include:
In cases of severe or chronic diarrhea, your doctor may order a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to determine if an underlying intestinal condition is the cause.
Because diarrhea causes a rapid loss of body fluids, it may put you at risk for dehydration. If left untreated, dehydration can be very serious and may even lead to death. The symptoms of dehydration include:
If you think you may be becoming dehydrated as a result of diarrhea, contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Treatment for diarrhea usually requires replacing lost fluids. This simply means you need to drink more water or electrolyte replacement beverages such as sports drinks. In more serious cases, fluids may be given intravenously. If a bacterial infection is causing your diarrhea, you doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will determine your treatment based on:
Diarrhea is serious condition in the very young. It can cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day, and this can lead to death.
Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care for the following symptoms:
Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are actions that you can take to prevent it.
To avoid developing diarrhea from food poisoning, consider:
Traveler’s diarrhea can also be prevented. If you are planning a long vacation to a developing country, consider:
If you are suffering from diarrhea as the result of a viral or bacterial infection, you can take the following actions to prevent spreading your infection to others:
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA
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