Diarrhea

Acute and Chronic Diarrhea

Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stool that must be passed more than 3 times daily. Almost every patient will experience diarrhea at least 1 or 2 times every year, although many cases are not serious. Acute diarrhea is a common condition that can affect patients of any age or sex, although it is frequently reported among young children and infants. Older patients suffering from the condition may feel unusually thirsty, light-headed, dizzy and tired. Their skin will feel dry, and they will notice that their urine looks darker in color. In younger patients, an adult may notice that a child is crying without producing tears or that the child is experiencing a decrease in urination throughout the day. Mostly, infants will seem irritable and may show signs of other illnesses, such as a high fever.

Some cases of diarrhea are chronic, meaning that the condition lasts on and off throughout a patient’s life and may need more diligent medical attention to screen for chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Other cases of acute diarrhea only last a couple of days and usually symptoms go away on their own.  Overall, infection is the leading cause of diarrhea in the world.  Travellers who develop sudden diarrhea symptoms should seek medical attention for possible antibiotic treatment.

If you experience diarrhea for more than a few days, it is important that you go see a medical doctor about your symptoms. Persistent diarrhea often leads to dehydration because a significant amount of water and important chemicals called electrolytes is lost when patients frequently pass loose stool. Leaving dehydration unattended can lead to more serious health issues such as damage to the organs, bodily shock or coma. While most patients who are experiencing diarrhea are able to keep up with their fluids losses by oral ingestion, occasionally intravenous fluids will be needed – especially if the diarrhea persists with vomiting.  Diarrhea patients who also have a high fever, blood in the stool or excessively dark-colored stool should contact a medical provider immediately.

Causes of Diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea is usually a sign of underlying chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis, which occur when there is severe inflammation in a patient’s colon tissue. Conversely, acute diarrhea, is triggered by more common conditions, such as a virus or bacterium. It usually does not have to be diagnosed if it only lasts a couple of days. While some rarer causes of diarrhea include traveling (“Traveler’s Diarrhea”) and increased rate of digestion as a result of stomach surgery, some common reasons why a patient may have diarrhea include:

Diarrhea Treatment

Your gastroenterologist (GI doctor) can perform routine tests to diagnose possible underlying causes of your diarrhea. Common procedures include stool tests, blood tests, colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. In most cases, however, over-the-counter pr prescription medication will usually ease the symptoms until the condition goes away naturally. Depending on your other symptoms, you may need to consult with a doctor about which drug is best (i.e. diarrhea patients who detect blood in their stool ay need to avoid certain over-the-counter medications). It is important to consult a doctor for diarrhea that is severe, associated with blood, or persistent.  During this recovery process, it’s important to drink plenty of clear liquids to compensate for fluids lost of the watery stool.

Try to avoid greasy foods, fibrous foods and sweet foods while you are experiencing diarrhea, as these can sometimes make the diarrhea worse. Milk, cheese and other dairy products have also been known to cause problems—although sometimes yogurt with active bacterial cultures in it may work to help diarrhea go away sooner, and in some cases taking probiotic medications can help restore the bowel’s normal bacterial flora helping with some symptoms of gas/bloat. Most patients opt for meals containing generally bland foods, such as bananas and rice, which tend to solidify stool. Toast, crackers and baked chicken also have stool-hardening effects.

 

Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014