Diarrhea is very common, affecting up to 20 percent of adults in the Western world.
Diarrhea is a common bowel disorder in which there are large amounts of watery, looser stools, and sometimes blood in the stool. It can be very painful.
While there are many causes and treatments of diarrhea, the most common cause is food poisoning. A few common things that may irritate or inflame the digestive system and cause diarrhea are:
- Certain foods (such as spicy foods)
- Certain drinks (such as carbonated drinks)
- Certain medications
- Certain medical conditions (such as Crohn’s disease)
Diarrhea is not the same as the more common and less severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which includes bloating and a change in bowel habits (diarrhea).
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea is caused by a number of different factors. This includes:
- Certain foods or drinks
- Certain medical conditions
- Certain infections
In many cases, the exact cause of diarrhea is not known. It can be the result of a number of factors, including:
- Dehydration: Diarrhea is more common in people who are dehydrated, especially in hot weather or during strenuous exercise.
- Infections: Bacteria, viruses, and parasites can cause diarrhea.
- Hernias: A hernia is a small bulge in the inner lining of the intestine that allows an organ, such as an intestine, to protrude from the wall of the abdomen.
- Impaired immune response: This can be caused by a weakened immune system, which can lead to an infection.
- Parasites: Parasites can cause inflammation of the digestive tract, which can lead to diarrhea.
- Radiation or chemotherapy: This can lead to diarrhea because of the damage to the intestine from the treatment.
- Certain medications: In some cases, diarrhea can be a side effect from medications.
Diarrhea can also be caused by other things, such as:
Frequent or long-term use of antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, clarithromycin, or ciprofloxacin
Drinking too much water
Eating too much sugar, especially in combination with consuming a lot of dairy products
Not consuming enough fiber
Eating too many spicy or fatty foods
Overuse of laxatives
Eating too much or too little of certain vitamins, such as folic acid, B12, or iron
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
The main symptom of diarrhea is a lack of bowel movements. Diarrhea can be mild or severe. Mild diarrhea usually causes no symptoms but may be accompanied by a loss of appetite. Severe diarrhea can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, and a loss of appetite.
The main symptoms of diarrhea are:
- Frequent or long-term diarrhea
- Watery stools
- Blood in your stool
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
Common symptoms that indicate other conditions are:
- Bloody stool
- Change in bowel habits
- Stomach pain
- Diarrhea that is not caused by food or drink
How is diarrhea diagnosed?
If you have diarrhea that is accompanied by other symptoms and you have recently traveled to an area where the diarrhea is common, you should contact your doctor. This is especially true if you are experiencing the diarrhea in conjunction with another condition, such as the flu.
If a medical condition is causing your diarrhea, your doctor will order a stool sample for testing. The sample will be examined under a microscope to assess the amount of bacteria in your stool.
How is diarrhea treated?
Treatment for diarrhea depends on the cause. The goal of treatment is to decrease the number of bacteria in your digestive tract and increase the number of healthy bacteria.
Doctors usually treat mild cases of diarrhea with:
- Electrolyte solution: This is a solution that has salt in it. Electrolytes are essential for maintaining normal body fluids. Electrolyte solutions are usually given if you have diarrhea that is not caused by a medical condition.
- Electrolyte solution with food: This is a solution that contains electrolytes with a small amount of food. This helps replenish the electrolytes lost from diarrhea.
- Laxatives: These are medicines that reduce the amount of stool produced.
If your diarrhea is caused by a medical condition, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or other drugs to treat it.
If your diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. It is important not to pass the infection to others because it can be very serious.
If the diarrhea is caused by a parasite, you may be prescribed a medication to kill the parasite.
If the diarrhea is caused by radiation, you may receive treatment to reduce the effects on your body.
How can I prevent future diarrhea?
The best way to prevent future diarrhea is to drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet.
To reduce your risk of dehydration, drink plenty of water. Drink at least 64 ounces (oz) of water per day.
Limit your intake of caffeine, which can cause dehydration.
You should also eat a healthy diet. Eat foods such as:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
You should also limit your intake of:
- Fried foods
- Fatty foods
- Spicy foods
- Foods that are high in fat, salt, or sugar
If you are experiencing diarrhea due to a chronic condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may be advised to follow a low-fiber diet.
If your diarrhea is caused by an infection, such as food poisoning or bacteria, you should follow a diet that contains:
- Antidiarrheal medications such as loperamide (Imodium)
- Antifungal medications
If you are experiencing diarrhea from a medication, your doctor may be able to reduce the dose or change the medication. You may need to take the medication for a longer period of time.
- See your doctor if you have diarrhea that is occurring on a regular basis
- See your doctor if you are experiencing diarrhea that is accompanied by other symptoms
- Contact your doctor if you have been exposed to an infectious disease that may cause diarrhea
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