1 What is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a condition in which a person has loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. Most people experience diarrhea at some point in their lives.

The signs and symptoms of diarrhea last a couple of days and in most cases can disappear on their own, without treatment.

Symptoms that last longer usually indicate that the person has an underlying disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel disease.

2 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of diarrhea may include:

3 Causes

Causes of diarrhea include:

  • Viruses, such as Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, viral hepatitis and rotavirus (especially in children).
  • Bacterial such as campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli.
  • Parasites including Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium.
  • Medications, such as antibiotics which may lead to a disturbance in the natural balance of microorganisms in the intestines. This can lead to Clostridium difficile l infection which in turn leads to diarrhea.
  • Lactose intolerance due to lack of an enzyme that digests lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.
  • Fructose, a sugar found in fruits and honey and added to some beverages as a sweetener, can cause diarrhea in people who have trouble digesting it.
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol and mannitol found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products.
  • Abdominal surgery or gallbladder removal surgery.
  • Other digestive disorders, such Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, microscopic colitis and irritable bowel disease.These disorders are usually accompanied by chronic diarrhea.

Diarrhea occurs when food or liquid passes too fast, in large amounts or a combination of both through the colon (large intestines).

The colon normally absorbs water, leading to the formation of semisolid stools. In diarrhea, water is not absorbed in the colon, this leads to the formation of watery stools.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Tests and procedures that can be used to diagnose the cause of diarrhea include:

  • A physical exam to check for fever and signs of dehydration and to measure blood pressure and pulse. Doctors may also check if the patient has abdominal pain.
  • Medical history including a review of all medications and supplements that a patient has been taking.
  • A complete blood count.
  • Stool test to determine if diarrhea is as a result of infection caused by bacteria or parasites.

5 Treatment

Most cases of diarrhea clear on their own and do not require treatment.

If diarrhea persists despite lifestyle changes and home remedies, the following may be recommended:

  • Antibiotics if diarrhea is caused by a bacteria or parasite. It is important to note that antibiotics do not relieve symptoms of diarrhea that are caused by viruses.
  • Replacing lost fluids and salts by drinking more fluids, such as water, broth, and juices. Fluids may also be given intravenously.
  • Reducing the dose of medications that are causing diarrhea or switching to another medication.
  • Treating the underlying condition if diarrhea occurs as a result of another digestive disorder.

6 Prevention


Diarrhea can be prevented by:

  • Washing the hands with soap frequently before and after preparing food.
  • Using hand sanitizer when washing isn't possible.
  • Serving food right away after it has been cooked or refrigerating it.
  • Washing work surfaces frequently to avoid the spread of germs from one food item to another.
  • Using the refrigerator to thaw frozen foods or placing plastic-wrapped items in a bowl of cold water to thaw. Do not let frozen items thaw on the counter.

7 Lifestyle And Coping

Lifestyle modifications are necessary in order to cope with diarrhea.

The following can help to relieve the signs and symptoms of diarrhea:

  • Drinking plenty of clear fluids, such as water, broths, and juices. Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided.
  • Adding semisolid and low-fiber foods, such as soda crackers, toast, rice, eggs or chicken gradually as bowel movements return to normal.
  • Avoiding fatty foods, dairy products, high-fiber foods and spicy foods.
  • Using over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide (Imodium A-D) and bismuth salicylate (Pepto-Bismol) to reduce the number of watery bowel movements.
  • Using probiotics, drugs that contain strains of bacteria similar to those normally found in the intestines. Probiotics help to boost the number of healthy bacteria present in the intestines.

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