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Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools or a frequent need to have a bowel movement. It usually lasts a few days and often disappears without any treatment. Diarrhea can be acute or chronic.
Acute diarrhea occurs when the condition lasts for one to two days. You might experience diarrhea as a result of a viral or bacterial infection. Other times, it could be due to food poisoning. There’s even a condition known as traveler’s diarrhea, which happens when you have diarrhea after being exposed to bacteria or parasites while on vacation in a developing nation. Acute diarrhea is fairly common.
Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts for at least four weeks. It’s usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
You may experience diarrhea as a result of a number of conditions or circumstances. Potential causes of diarrhea include:
Diarrhea is also a common side effect of diarrhea.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Rotavirus is a common cause of childhood diarrhea. Bacterial infections due to Salmonella or Escherichia coli, among others, are also common.
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Frequent and severe diarrhea could be a sign of intestinal disease or a functional bowel disorder.
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea. You may experience only one of these or any combination of all of them. The symptoms depend on the cause. It’s common to feel one or more of the following:
Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
Diarrhea can cause you to lose fluids quickly and put you at risk for dehydration. If you don’t receive treatment for diarrhea, it can have very serious effects. The symptoms of dehydration include:
Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you think your diarrhea is causing you to become dehydrated.
Diarrhea is a serious condition in very young people. It can cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day.
Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care if you see symptoms of dehydration, such as:
Seek immediate treatment if any of the following apply to your child:
These are all symptoms that indicate an emergency.
Your doctor will complete a physical examination and consider your medical history when determining the cause of your diarrhea. They 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 can include:
A colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy is especially helpful for determining if you have an intestinal disease if you have severe or chronic diarrhea.
The 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, you may get fluids through intravenous therapy. If a bacterial infection is the cause of your diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will decide your treatment based on:
Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are actions that you can take to prevent it:
You can help prevent traveler’s diarrhea by taking the following steps when traveling to a developing nation:
If you have diarrhea that’s due to a viral or bacterial infection, you can prevent spreading the infection to others by washing your hands more frequently. When you wash your hands, use soap and wash for 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t possible.
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Mar 07, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA
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