What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is loose, watery stools. A person with diarrhea typically passes stool more than three times a day. People with diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day. Acute diarrhea is a common problem that usually lasts 1 or 2 days and goes away on its own without special treatment. Prolonged diarrhea persisting for more than 2 days may be a sign of a more serious problem and poses the risk of dehydration. Chronic diarrhea may be a feature of a chronic disease.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and older people, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.
People of all ages can get diarrhea and the average adult has a bout of acute diarrhea about four times a year. In the United States, each child will have had seven to 15 episodes of diarrhea by age 5.
What causes diarrhea?
Acute diarrhea is usually related to a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. Chronic diarrhea is usually related to functional disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.
A few of the more common causes of diarrhea include the following:
- Bacterial infections. Several types of bacteria consumed through contaminated food or water can cause diarrhea. Common culprits include Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
- Viral infections. Many viruses cause diarrhea, including rotavirus, Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, and viral hepatitis.
- Food intolerances. Some people are unable to digest food components such as artificial sweeteners and lactose—the sugar found in milk.
- Parasites. Parasites can enter the body through food or water and settle in the digestive system. Parasites that cause diarrhea include Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Cryptosporidium.
- Reaction to medicines. Antibiotics, blood pressure medications, cancer drugs, and antacids containing magnesium can all cause diarrhea.
- Intestinal diseases. Inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease often lead to diarrhea.
- Functional bowel disorders. Diarrhea can be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome.
Some people develop diarrhea after stomach surgery or removal of the gallbladder. The reason may be a change in how quickly food moves through the digestive system after stomach surgery or an increase in bile in the colon after gallbladder surgery
People who visit foreign countries are at risk for traveler’s diarrhea, which is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Traveler’s diarrhea can be a problem for people visiting developing countries. Visitors to the United States, Canada, most European countries, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand do not face much risk for traveler’s diarrhea. See Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea.
In many cases, the cause of diarrhea cannot be found. As long as diarrhea goes away on its own, an extensive search for the cause is not usually necessary.
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, or an urgent need to use the bathroom. Depending on the cause, a person may have a fever or bloody stools.
Diarrhea in Children
Children can have acute and chronic forms of diarrhea. Causes include bacteria, viruses, parasites, medications, functional bowel disorders, and food sensitivities. Infection with the rotavirus is the most common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Rotavirus diarrhea usually resolves in 3 to 9 days. Children who are 6 to 32 weeks old can be vaccinated against the virus with a vaccine called Rotateq.
If your child has diarrhea, do not hesitate to call the doctor for advice. Diarrhea is especially dangerous in newborns and infants, leading to dehydration in just a day or two. A child can die from dehydration within a few days. The main treatment for diarrhea in children is rehydration to replace lost fluid quickly. See Dehydration.
Take your child to the doctor if there is no improvement after 24 hours or if any of the following symptoms appear:
- stools containing blood or pus
- black stools
- a temperature above 102 degrees
- signs of dehydration
Medications to treat diarrhea in adults can be dangerous for children and should only be given with a doctor’s guidance.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body has lost too much fluid and too many electrolytes and can’t function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and in older adults and must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.
Signs of dehydration include:
- less frequent urination
- dry skin
- dark-colored urine
Signs of dehydration in children include:
- dry mouth and tongue
- no tears when crying
- no wet diapers for 3 hours or more
- sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks
- high fever
- listlessness or irritability
- skin that does not flatten when pinched and released
If you suspect that you or your child is dehydrated, call the doctor immediately. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization.
The fluid and electrolytes lost during diarrhea need to be replaced promptly because the body cannot function without them. Electrolytes are the salts and minerals that affect the amount of water in your body, muscle activity, and other important functions.
Although water is extremely important in preventing dehydration, it does not contain electrolytes. Broth and soups that contain sodium, and fruit juices, soft fruits, or vegetables that contain potassium, help restore electrolyte levels. Over-the-counter rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte, Ceralyte, and Infalyte are also good electrolyte sources and are especially recommended for use in children.