What is Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is loose, watery stools. A person with diarrhea typically passes stool more than threetimes a day. People with diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day.
Acute diarrhea is a common problem that usually lasts 1 or 2 days and goes away on its own without special treatment. Prolonged diarrhea persisting for more than 2 days may be a sign of a more serious problem and poses the risk of dehydration. Chronic diarrhea may be a feature of a chronic disease.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and older people, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.
When to Call the Doctor ?
Call your doctor if your child has diarrhea and is younger than 6 months old or has:
- A severe or prolonged episode of diarrhea
- Fever of 102°F or higher
- Repeated vomiting, or refusal to drink fluids
- Severe abdominal pain
- Diarrhea that contains blood or mucus
Call the doctor immediately if your child seems to be dehydrated. Signs of dehydration include:
- Dry or sticky mouth
- Few or no tears when crying
- Eyes that look sunken into the head
- Soft spot (fontanelle) on top of the head that looks sunken
- Lack of urine or wet diapers for 6 to 8 hours in an infant (or only a very small amount of dark yellow urine)
- Lack of urine for 12 hours in an older child (or only a very small amount of dark yellow urine)
- Dry, cool skin
- Lethargy or irritability
- Fatigue or dizziness in an older child
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms typically start with crampy abdominal pain followed by diarrhea that usually lasts no more than a few days. Infections with many of the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea also can bring on other symptoms, such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
In cases of viral gastroenteritis, kids often develop fever and vomiting first, followed by diarrhea.
How is the Cause of Diarrhea Diagnosed?
Diagnostic tests to find the cause of diarrhea may include the following:
- Medical history and physical examination. The doctor will ask you about your eating habits and medication use and will examine you for signs of illness.
- Stool culture. A sample of stool is analyzed in a laboratory to check for bacteria, parasites, or other signs of disease and infection.
- Blood tests. Blood tests can be helpful in ruling out certain diseases.
- Fasting tests. To find out if a food intolerance or allergy is causing the diarrhea, the doctor may ask you to avoid lactose, carbohydrates, wheat, or other foods to see whether the diarrhea responds to a change in diet.
- Sigmoidoscopy. For this test, the doctor uses a special instrument to look at the inside of the rectum and lower part of the colon.
- Colonoscopy. This test is similar to a sigmoidoscopy, but it allows the doctor to view the entire colon.
- Imaging tests. These tests can rule out structural abnormalities as the cause of diarrhea.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Acute diarrhea is usually related to a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. Chronic diarrhea is usually related to functional disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.
A few of the more common causes of diarrhea include the following:
- Bacterial infections. Several types of bacteria consumed through contaminated food or water can cause diarrhea. Common culprits include Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
- Viral infections. Many viruses cause diarrhea, including rotavirus, Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, and viral hepatitis.
- Food intolerances. Some people are unable to digest food components such as artificial sweeteners and lactose—the sugar found in milk.
- Parasites. Parasites can enter the body through food or water and settle in the digestive system. Parasites that cause diarrhea include Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Cryptosporidium.
- Reaction to medicines. Antibiotics, blood pressure medications, cancer drugs, and antacids containing magnesium can all cause diarrhea.
- Intestinal diseases. Inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease often lead to diarrhea.
- Functional bowel disorders. Diarrhea can be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome.
Some people develop diarrhea after stomach surgery or removal of the gallbladder. The reason may be a change in how quickly food moves through the digestive system after stomach surgery or an increase in bile in the colon after gallbladder surgery.
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