Diarrhea Symptoms & Treatment
Characterized by loose, watery stools, diarrhea is a common condition for people of all ages. It may be acute, persistent, or chronic. Acute diarrhea lasts for 1 or 2 days, persistent lasts for more than 2 weeks but less than 4 weeks, and chronic lasts for 4 weeks or more.
In most cases, this condition is caused by a viral infection, such as the stomach flu, or a bacterial infection, although it may be associated with an underlying medical condition.
Most cases of diarrhea are treated at home and resolve in a few days. It is important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. Severe diarrhea can be associated with serious medical complications and require hospitalization.
Acute diarrhea is most frequently caused by a viral infection, such as the stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis). It may also be caused by bacteria or parasites from contaminated food or water. Traveler’s diarrhea is an example of a bacteria-related diarrhea. It is common among those who travel to developing countries.
Certain medications can cause acute or persistent diarrhea, especially some antibiotics and antacids containing magnesium. In addition, diarrhea is a common side effect of chemotherapy used to treat cancer.
Chronic diarrhea may be caused by certain bacterial or parasitic infections, as well as a number of medical conditions such as:
- Food allergies
- Lactose intolerance
- Fructose intolerance
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Small intestine bacterial overgrowth
You may develop chronic diarrhea after abdominal surgery or taking antibiotics for a long period of time.
Symptoms of diarrhea include loose, watery stools. You may experience abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and an urgent need to go to the bathroom frequently.
If your diarrhea is caused by certain infections, you may see blood in your stool. You may have fever, chills, dizziness, or vomiting.
Complications of chronic diarrhea include dehydration and malabsorption. Dehydration can be severe and life threatening, especially for infants, children, and older adults.
Symptoms of dehydration include:
- Urinating less than usual (in infants, no wet diapers for 3 hours or more)
- Dark-colored urine
- Dry mouth
- Lack of skin turgor, meaning that when your skin is pinched and released, it does not return to its normal position right away
- Sunken eyes or cheeks (or soft spot in the skull of infants)
- Light-headedness or fainting in adults
- Behavior changes and confusion in older adults
- No tears when crying for infants and young children
If your diarrhea lasts longer than 4 days, if you have a fever or bloody stools, or if you become dehydrated, you should see a doctor.
Your doctor will review your medical history and conduct a physical examination to determine the cause of your condtion in order to provide appropriate treatment. Be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms, risk factors, travel history, and if you have been around people with similar symptoms.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your lifestyle, diet, bowel movement patterns, and stools to help make a diagnosis. You doctor may order stool tests, blood tests, and urine tests.
Most cases of acute diarrhea can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications such as Imodium and Pepto-Bismol®. You should drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
If you have persistent or chronic diarrhea, treatment will depend on the cause and severity of your condition. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and medicines that target parasites to treat bacterial or parasitic infections. If an underlying disease is causing your diarrhea, the doctor will diagnose and treat it. Lifestyle, dietary changes, and/or medication may help some conditions.
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