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Diarrhea

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Diarrhea is the passing of unusually loose or watery stool at increased frequency (more than three times per day). It is a common problem that may last a few days and disappear on its own.

Diarrhea may be acute (short-term), usually as a result of minor or passing illness, or chronic (long-term), which is usually related to a functional disorder or intestinal disease.

Causes/risk factors

Diarrhea may be caused b a number of conditions, including the following:

  • a bacterial infection;
  • a viral infection;
  • food intolerances or allergies;
  • parasites;
  • a reaction to medications;
  • an intestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease;
  • a functional bowel disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome;
  • and surgery to the GI tract.

"Traveler's diarrhea" is common and is most often caused by ingesting bacteria to which the person does not have resistance.

Signs & symptoms

The primary symptom of diarrhea is frequent urge and need for bowel movements that produce loose or watery stool. Other symptoms that can accompany this include:

  • cramping;
  • abdominal pain;
  • bloating;
  • nausea;
  • fever;
  • dehydration.

Diarrhea that lasts more than a few days, or that has blood in it, is cause to consult a physician, as are severe pain, high fever, or signs of dehydration. Dehydration is one of the more serious side effects of diarrhea. Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • thirst;
  • less-frequent urination;
  • dry skin;
  • fatigue;
  • and light-headedness or fainting.

Diarrhea that lasts more than a few weeks may indicate a serious disease. Identifying the cause of the problem in some cases is difficult.

Diagnosis

Physicians generally diagnose diarrhea through the patient's description of the symptoms. If the diarrhea appears to be chronic, your doctor may recommend the following tests:

Blood tests can be useful in ruling out certain diseases, as fasting tests can in determining if a food intolerance or allergy is the cause.

Treatment

Treatment for diarrhea usually involves replacing lost fluids, but may include antibiotics when bacterial infections are the cause. Other treatments include:

  • absorbents, which are compounds that bind water in the intestines;
  • anti-motility drugs that relax the movements of the intestines (permitting them to absorb more of the water content of the stool) and that relieve cramps. These medications should be used only when following precautions and for not more than 72 hours without physician supervision
  • bismuth compounds (such as Pepto-Bismol).

If another disease or condition is the cause of the diarrhea, treatment will target that primary problem.