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Diarrhea: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Diarrhea is a common health problem. It can begin from being a mild, temporary condition and develop into a potential life-threatening problem.

There are about 2 billion diarrhea cases recorded every year across the world, with approximately 1.9 million cases of death of children of age below 5 years, typically in developing countries.

Meaning/ Definition of Diarrhea:

Diarrhea means getting loose, watery stools three or more times in a day. Usually it lasts for a couple of days. Diarrhea can either be acute or chronic. When it lasts for more than a few days, it is acute diarrhea. This could be a sign of a bigger problem. Chronic diarrhea lasts for around four weeks – which may be a symptom of a serious disease. It usually results from an intestinal problem or disorder, like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.

There are some people who pass stools very often, but that is not diarrhea as they are of normal consistency. Likewise, breastfed infants also pass loose, pale stools. This is also not diarrhea.

Types of Diarrhea:

  • Microscopic colitis : This type of diarrhea majorly affects the elderly people, causing trouble most often during the night time. It can continue for a long time and may not go away completely in some cases.
  • Mal-absorptive and Mal-digestive diarrhea : Sometimes, non-absorption of food nutrients can cause mal-absorptive diarrhea. While non-functioning of the digestive system leads to mal-digestive diarrhea, such as Celiac disease.
  • Chronic infections : A persistent use of antibiotics or parasitic infection during travel can lead to chronic diarrhea.
  • Drug-induced diarrhea : this type of diarrhea is induced by certain laxatives and other medications or antibiotics.
  • Endocrine causes : hormonal factors also cause diarrhea, for instance, in the case of Addison disease and carcinoid tumors.
  • Neoplastic diarrhea : this type of diarrhea is linked with different forms of gut cancers.

Causes of Diarrhea:

Diarrhea may result from a variety of conditions or circumstances. Main causes of diarrhea are:

  • A food allergy or intolerance, for example: lactose intolerance
  • A medication reaction
  • A viral infection
  • A bacterial infection
  • Infection in the gastrointestinal tract
  • A parasitic infection
  • Gallbladder or stomach operation

Research studies by Mayo Clinic say that Rotavirus is a major factor that causes childhood diarrhea. Other bacterial infections caused by Salmonella or Escherichia coli , may also result in diarrhea.

Irritable bowel disorder or inflammatory bowel syndrome may also sometimes cause chronic diarrhea. If you are experiencing regular and severe diarrhea, it could mean you are suffering from a functional bowel disorder or an internal intestinal problem.

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Symptoms of Diarrhea:

Diarrhea may have various signs or symptoms. You might get one of these or a combination of many symptoms. The symptoms occur depending on the underlying cause. Mostly, you may experience the following signs:

  • Motion sickness
  • Stomach pain
  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration
  • A fever
  • Stools with blood stains
  • Regular urges to clear your bowels
  • Stools in a big volume

Consult your physician if you have symptoms like any of the above.

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Dehydration and Diarrhea:

Diarrhea leads to loss of fluids in the body due to which there is a risk of dehydration. If treatment is not given on time, diarrhea can have other side effects and major dehydration. Dehydration occurs when you experience symptoms such as:

  • Extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • Dry mucous tissues
  • Pulsating heart rate
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dry throat and amplified thirst
  • Lesser frequencies of urine
  • Mouth dryness

Consult your doctor immediately if your symptoms do not go away and your diarrhea is causing increased dehydration.

Who gets Diarrhea?

Diarrhea can occur to people of all ages.

People travelling to developing countries have the risk of getting traveler's diarrhea. This condition occurs due to consumption of contaminated food or water.

Diarrhea in babies and young children:

Diarrhea may be a small problem for an adult but when it affects at a very young age, for example an infant, it causes severe dehydration and may be fatal.

Immediately visit your pediatrician or take emergency help when you notice the following symptoms in your child:

  • No urination or very less urination
  • Dry mouth
  • Irritability
  • Weakness
  • No tears while crying
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry skin
  • Sunken fontanel
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability

Seek instant help if any of the following symptoms are observed in your child:

  • Diarrhea lasts for more than 24 hours.
  • Your child has fever of 102°F or higher.
  • The child passes stools that contain traces of blood or pus.
  • Stools are black and sticky.

Diagnosis of Diarrhea:

A doctor will conduct a physical examination and study your medical history while investigating the cause of your diarrhea. A laboratory test may also be done to scan urine and blood samples.

There are other tests that your doctor may conduct to diagnose the cause of diarrhea and its side effects:

  • Fasting tests to check if there is any food intolerance or insensitivity that is causing diarrhea.
  • A culture test of stool to check for possible infections of bacteria, parasites, or other viral infections.
  • Imaging tests to check for intestinal inflammation or other structural disorders.
  • A colonoscopy to examine the colon for symptoms of intestinal disease
  • A sigmoidoscopy to examine the rectum and lower part of colon for symptoms of intestinal infection

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Treatment of Diarrhea:

Since diarrhea leads to loss of fluids in the body, the treatment for diarrhea is done by inducing a lot of fluids in the body. It can be done through drinking plenty of water or electrolyte replacement beverages, juices, health and energy drinks, etc. In chronic cases of diarrhea, fluids may be induced by intravenous therapy. If your doctor finds a bacterial infection, you might be asked to take antibiotics for some time.

Your doctor will start your treatment depending on:

  • How sever your diarrhea is and whether there are any related conditions
  • The frequency of the diarrhea
  • How dehydrated you are
  • Your normal health
  • Your past medical history
  • Your current age
  • Your tolerance towards various medical procedures or drugs
  • Chances of improvement of your health condition

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Prevention of Diarrhea:

Though the exact cause of diarrhea may vary among different people, there are measures that you can take to avoid it:

  • Diarrhea from food contamination can be prevented by cleaning the kitchen and food preparation areas regularly and keeping proper hygiene.
  • Taking food immediately after cooking instead of taking food stored for too long.
  • Leftovers should be properly refrigerated.
  • Frozen food should be defrosted in a refrigerator.

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How to prevent traveler’s Diarrhea?

Follow the below steps while traveling, especially to a developing nation:

  • You may want to ask your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This will greatly reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
  • Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce that have probably been washed with tap water while you’re on vacation.
  • Drink bottled water only while on vacation.
  • Eat cooked food only while on vacation.

Risk factors of Diarrhea:

  • Age factor: Diarrhea in children of age three years or less can be risky, as they are more prone to dehydration. Infants are at a greater risk. Even older people are at risk of getting dehydrated through diarrhea.
  • Environmental factors : Poor hygiene and unclean environment can spread the disease fast
    Medications: heavy use of antibiotics and drugs and aggravate the condition of the disease
  • Co morbidities : People with Diabetes, kidney abnormalities, and intussusceptions are also at greater risk of being dehydrated due to occurrence of Diarrhea.

Some Myths about Diarrhea:

Myth #1. “BRAT Formula (banana, rice, apple sauce and tea) can alone cure Diarrhea”

Fact: This diet does work in calming the stomach and producing a relaxing effect due to light food components. However, the body needs all the essential nutrients like minerals and vitamins to restore its original health. So, after using BRAT formula the 1st day, you should start adding wholesome ingredients like fat and protein to get back to your original health.

Myth #2. "Diarrhea is just one of the many symptoms of the common Influenza ":

Fact: Influenza rarely cause diarrhea; its major symptoms are fever and pain. It is a respiratory disease affecting the lungs. Diarrhea may be caused by the stomach flu, not the common flu.

Myth #3. "We should totally avoid whole fat in our food to get rid of Diarrhea":

Fact: Fat is hard to digest and can be a lot of load to the stomach, but that does not mean you should completely remove it from your diet.

Fat is an important ingredient of your diet and also helps in easing the symptoms of diarrhea. All you need to take care of is to take it in appropriate amounts.

Myth #4."Teething leads to diarrhea in toddlers ":

The truth: Diarrhea is caused due to impurities and contamination in the surroundings. A child in the teething phase generally takes every object in his mouth to soothe his teething procedure. In this process, he /she gets many impurities transferred as the objects may be dirty and unhygienic; this could lead to a stomach infection and diarrhea. So, always consult a doctor if your teething child is experiencing diarrhea.

Myth #6. "Avoid fluids because it will make your diarrhea worse":

Fact: This is the biggest mistake that people do their body and health and it can be fatal. If you are suffering from diarrhea, you are already losing a lot of fluids from your body which makes you dehydrated. Water has important minerals and vitamins that the body needs to function properly. So, it is even more important to consume increasing amounts of water and other fluids to regain the lost nutrients and keep your body hydrated.

Myth #7. "Drink caffeinated drinks and beverages during the period of diarrhea":

Fact: People think taking caffeinated drinks will relax their stomach for a while and curb their need to visiting the toilet frequently. This is completely false. In fact, beverages like tea and coffee and other foods having caffeine content are diuretic and can further worsen your digestive health and aggravate your diarrhea occurrences.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

1) How will I know if my symptoms are of Diarrhea?

Ans: Diarrhoea is a disorder related to the abnormal functioning of intestines, which causes excess fecal evacuations, due to increased motility in the colon. It could be due to underlying dysenteric disorders, GI tumors, inflammatory bowel syndrome, and lactose intolerance. In plain words, when you experience excess passage of watery stools that lasts for more than a day, it could be diarrhea. This may lead to your body getting dehydrated   because frequent watery stools flush out important body salts and fluids and make you weak.

2) Is Diarrhea dangerous?

Ans: Yes! If not treated on time, it could lead to your body getting very dehydrated due to loss of fluids and body salts which are important to balance the body and keep it functioning normally. Dehydration can be severe and sometimes fatal.

3) What is dehydration?

Ans: When you lose excess water and body salts due to diarrhea, it is called dehydration. Water is very important to maintain the body balance and keep it functioning normally. If water content in body gets too low, it makes you weak and unable to perform normal routine as your body also loses electrolytes along with other fluids. These are essential salts that provide minerals and vitamins to the body and keep it running. Dehydration can be caused through:

  • Excess urination
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating

4) What cause dehydration?

Ans: Diarrhea followed by vomiting and loos of body fluids can cause dehydration.

You may also become dehydrated if you drink less water and have bad eating habits.

Certain medications that are diuretic also lead to loss of fluid in the body. The following people are more at risk of being dehydrated:

  • Infants
  • The elderly people
  • People suffering from fever or any other illness
  • People living in hot weather

5) How can I prevent diarrhea?

Ans: Maintaining proper hygiene and cleanliness at your home and in your surroundings will prevent you from getting the disease. Wash your hands before eating and keep your kitchen and food area clean. Store food items in clean places and never leave your food uncovered.

Drink clean purified water, and avoid street foods that may be contaminated.

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Last updated on : 24-12-2018

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