Here’s how to identify the cause of your diarrhea, and when to see a doctor.
The first step in identifying the cause of your diarrhea is to take a look at the symptoms you’re experiencing. If you’re experiencing diarrhea for more than 3 days, you should see a doctor. The doctor will perform a stool test to determine the cause of your diarrhea.
Diarrhea can be caused by a number of things. Some are serious and require immediate medical attention. Others can be resolved with simple treatments.
Let’s take a look at what causes diarrhea, and when a person should see a doctor to receive a diagnosis.
Causes of diarrhea
There are several causes of diarrhea. The following are the most common ones:
- Food poisoning
- Stomach bug
- Diarrhea after eating contaminated food
- Colds and flus
- Food allergies
- Intestinal infections
- Intestinal blockages
- Parasitic infections
- E. coli
- Acid reflux
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Irritable colon syndrome (IBS-C)
Symptoms of diarrhea
Symptoms of diarrhea vary from person to person. Some people experience mild diarrhea, while others experience diarrhea that lasts for up to 3 days.
Symptoms of mild diarrhea include:
- Diarrhea that lasts for less than 3 days
- Blood in the stool
Symptoms of severe diarrhea include:
- Bloody diarrhea
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days
- Diarrhea that leads to dehydration
- Severe abdominal pain
- Severe cramping or cramping that is associated with vomiting
- Severe stomach pain
Diarrhea is a symptom of a gastrointestinal tract problem. Doctors diagnose gastrointestinal tract problems by performing a stool test called a stool culture. A stool culture will determine the presence of bacteria, parasites, or other organisms in your stool sample.
A doctor will usually order the following stool sample tests based on the symptoms you’re experiencing:
- Blood tests
- Stool culture
- Stool immunofluorescence
- Stool hemoccult blood
- Stool toxin
- Stool polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test
- Stool PCR test with a blood test
Diagnosing the cause of your diarrhea can be challenging. If you’re experiencing diarrhea for more than 3 days and see your doctor, they will perform stool tests to determine the cause of your diarrhea.
Treatment for diarrhea
Treatment will depend on the cause of your diarrhea. It will also depend on the severity of the diarrhea. Treatment for mild diarrhea may include:
- Drinking fluids, such as water, broth, or juice
- Eating bland foods, such as toast or crackers
- Eating bland foods and avoiding spicy or fatty foods
- Keeping your stools soft
- Keeping your bowels empty
- Taking an antidiarrheal medication, such as loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol)
- Eating soft foods, such as mashed potatoes or bananas
Treatment for more severe diarrhea will depend on the cause. Your doctor will determine the best course of treatment for you.
Medication for diarrhea
Common medications for diarrhea include:
- Antibiotics, such as ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and metronidazole (Flagyl)
- Antidiarrheal medication, such as loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol)
- Antidepressant medications, such as citalopram (Celexa) and paroxetine (Paxil)
- Antifungal medication, such as fluconazole (Diflucan) or itraconazole (Sporanox)
Food poisoning can cause diarrhea. There are a number of factors that can cause food poisoning. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:
- Muscle aches
- Body aches
Depending on the type of food poisoning, there may be additional symptoms. For example, if the food poisoning is caused by a virus, symptoms may not appear until 24 to 48 hours after exposure.
Food poisoning is often treated with oral rehydration therapy (ORT). ORT involves drinking fluids to replace the fluids that have been lost due to diarrhea.
The following are other treatment options for food poisoning. Be sure to consult your doctor before using any of these treatments.
1. Antibiotic therapy. Antibiotic therapy is used to treat food poisoning. Antibiotics kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning.
2. Diarrhea medicine. Diarrhea medicine is used to treat diarrhea. The standard treatments include loperamide (Imodium) and ciprofloxacin.
A stomach bug can cause diarrhea. Symptoms of a stomach bug include:
- Abdominal cramps
Stomach bugs are typically treated with:
- Antibiotics plus rehydration
- Antibiotics plus rehydration plus antidiarrheal medication
Parasitic infections can cause diarrhea. Symptoms of parasitic infections include:
- Diarrheal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, nausea, or fever
Parasitic infections are treated with:
- Antibiotic therapy
- Antibiotic therapy plus rehydration
- Antibiotic therapy plus rehydration plus antidiarrheal medication
Parasitic infection is often treated with intravenous (IV) or oral antidiarrheal medication.
Food allergies, such as lactose intolerance, can cause symptoms similar to those of a stomach bug.
Symptoms of a food allergy include:
- Swollen glands
- Stomach pain
- Diarrheal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, cramping, or gas
Symptoms of a food allergy are treated with:
- Antihistamines plus anti-inflammatory medicines
- Antihistamines plus anti-inflammatory medicines plus antihistamine tablets
Stress is another possible cause of stomach pain. Symptoms of stress include:
- Diarrheal symptoms
- Excessive sleepiness
Stress is treated with:
- Relaxation techniques
- Relaxation techniques plus stress-reducing medications
- Relaxation techniques plus stress-reducing medications plus anti-anxiety medication
A doctor, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist, can help treat stress.
Other causes of stomach pain may include:
- Gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract
- Infections, such as appendicitis or pancreatitis
- Hiatal hernia, which is an abnormal narrowing of the upper part of the stomach
- Peptic ulcer, which is a bleeding or sore inside the stomach
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a chronic form of acid reflux
- Gastrointestinal (GI) blockage, which is a narrowing of the stomach or part of the small intestine
- Gastritis, which is inflammation of the lining of the stomach
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST), which is a type of cancer that develops in the intestinal lining
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which is a type of bacteria that can cause ulcers
- IBD, which is an inflammation of the large intestine
- Pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas
- Ulcer, which is a sore on the lining of the stomach or intestine
How do I know if I have a stomach bug or a food allergy?
To diagnose a stomach bug, your doctor will first ask about your symptoms and medical history. They will also ask about your diet.
To determine if you have a food allergy, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history. They will then perform a physical exam.
The physical exam will include listening to your abdomen and checking for pain. Your doctor may also perform a blood test to check for a food allergy.
How is a stomach bug treated?
Treatment for a stomach bug will depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection. Your doctor will determine the best treatment option for you.
Antibiotic therapy is used to treat bacterial infections and to treat symptoms of a stomach bug. Your doctor may prescribe:
- Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) or metronidazole (Flagyl)
- Ampicillin (Amoxil)
- Metronidazole (Flagyl)
Antibiotic therapy is typically administered in a hospital.
If an antibiotic isn’t effective, your doctor may suggest other treatments.
Your doctor may recommend:
- Oral rehydration therapy: Oral rehydration therapy involves drinking fluids to replace the fluids that have been lost due to stomach pain.
- Antidiarrheal medication: Antidiarrheal medication is used to treat symptoms of a stomach bug.
- Antibiotic medication: Antibiotic medication is used to treat bacterial infections.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements: Taking vitamin and mineral supplements is a treatment for a stomach bug.
- Electrolyte replacement: Electrolyte replacement is used in cases of severe dehydration.
What is the long-term outlook for a stomach bug?
To determine the long-term outlook for a stomach bug, your doctor will perform a physical exam.
There are many potential complications that can arise from a stomach bug. The following are possible complications of a stomach bug:
- Dehydration. This complication occurs when you don’t drink enough fluids or use enough electrolytes.
- Severe dehydration. This complication occurs when you have severe dehydration.
- Diarrheal illness. Diarrheal illness is the inflammation of the digestive tract that occurs when you have a stomach flu.
- Severe abdominal pain. Severe abdominal pain can be a sign of perforation. This is a hole in the intestine that occurs when your stomach becomes severely inflamed.
- Peritonitis. This complication occurs when your stomach becomes inflamed and infected.
- Abdominal infection. This is a severe infection of the stomach or intestines.
- Pancreatitis. This is a common complication of a stomach bug. It occurs when your pancreas is damaged.
- Ulcers. This is a serious complication of a stomach bug. It occurs when your stomach becomes severely inflamed and infected.
Your doctor will also perform diagnostic imaging tests to confirm the condition and rule out other conditions.
How can I prevent stomach bugs?
To prevent a stomach bug, you should avoid:
- Taking aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the days leading up to your visit
- Taking certain medications, such as prescription and over-the-counter medicines, within two weeks of the start of the trip
- Taking medications that make you drowsy, such as pain relievers and sleeping pills
- Drinking alcohol and taking recreational drugs
- Taking medications that make you sick, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Taking medications that lower your body’s ability to fight infection, such as certain antiseizure medications
When traveling with a child, make sure that your child:
- Does not eat or drink anything for six hours before the trip
- Takes a multivitamin
- Has a physical exam by a doctor and an immunizations by the doctor
- Does not take medications that cause drowsiness, such as antihistamines, sedatives, or pain relievers
When traveling with a pregnant woman, check that she is not taking any medications that could harm the fetus.
When returning from an overseas trip, check your health for any symptoms of a stomach bug.
When traveling, check with your insurance company for any requirements you should have in order to be reimbursed for a doctor’s visit.
The bottom line
Diarrhea is a common symptom, but it’s important to see your doctor. They will perform tests to determine the cause of your diarrhea. They will also perform a physical examination to determine if there are any complications.
If your doctor determines that your symptoms are the result of a stomach bug, they may prescribe antibiotic and antidiarrheal medications.
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