Diarrhea

What is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea happens when too much fluid is secreted in the intestines and isn’t absorbed; it can also happen when a stool passes too rapidly. Diarrhea can be either absolute or relative. Absolute diarrhea occurs when there is more than five bowel movements a day and the stools are liquid, while relative diarrhea is just an increase in stool looseness and frequency for a person’s usual bowel movement habits.

Diarrhea can also be either acute or chronic. Acute diarrhea is often caused by a virus or bacteria. If a patient has another underlying issue—like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease—he or she may have chronic diarrhea.

Diarrhea can be a side effect of food sensitivities. For example, too much dairy, fiber, sugar, or wheat can cause some people to react badly. There are more food intolerances that can cause diarrhea, so a patient would need to do some trial-and-error diets to identify which foods are causing the problem.

What are the Symptoms of Diarrhea?

Typically, diarrhea isn’t a serious condition and can occur in most people every year; and, the condition usually resolves itself within a few days.

Symptoms include

  • abdominal cramping
  • abdominal pressure or pain
  • increased bowel movements
  • loose or watery stools

Some cases of diarrhea are indicative of a more serious condition, like colon cancer. Symptoms of a more serious condition should be checked out by a doctor.

Serious symptoms include

  • extreme dehydration
  • black stools
  • bloody stools
  • rectal pain or irritated anus
  • severe abdominal pain

Diarrhea Causes

Essentially, diarrhea is the result of excessive amounts of water entering the bowels and causing liquid stool. The reasons behind this dehydration are vast in numbers. Sometimes, it’s simply the result of drinking too much soda or consuming sweets. Other times, it’s caused by a bacterial infection of the bowels, known as enteritis, or other pathogens. It can even result from chronic hereditary diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome.

From a larger perspective, diarrhea is caused by undesirable social conditions throughout the world. Specifically, it appears that persons most at risk are those living in areas where open defecation, poor nutrition, and poor access to clean water are problematic. These conditions result in high rates of infections of the gut and increase the likelihood of someone suffering from diarrhea. When these conditions are alleviated, the likelihood of suffering from diarrhea decreases massively and results in low rates of the disease.

How is Diarrhea Treated?

Drinking lots of water can help clear up the intestines and stave off dehydration. Patients should also drink fluids that can restore their potassium, sodium, and chloride levels. If the diarrhea isn’t serious, over-the-counter medications should be sufficient. However, if a child has diarrhea for more than a day or an adult has diarrhea for more than three days, a doctor should be consulted—especially if more serious symptoms are present.

Diarrhea Prevention

The first line of defense against diarrhea is good hygiene and sanitation. Generally, when people wash their hands and avoid handling unclean things, such as waste products, they are unlikely to acquire the disease. It is especially important to make sure that any food you consume has been handled by people who practice good hygiene. Avoid going to fast food restaurants or other locations where you will have your food handled by persons you can’t see.

Another major step towards the prevention of diarrhea is to keep proper levels of nutrition. In general, zinc deficiency is most often associated with diarrhea. Zinc plays a vital role in allowing the body to retain water, which means that it is absolutely essential to giving people the best chance of preventing these dehydrating disease. In cases of chronic diarrhea, as seen in Crohn’s disease, it is important to contact doctors to analyze the underlying cause.

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Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017
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