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What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is defined either as watery stool, or increased frequency, or both, when compared to a normal amount. It is a common problem that may last a few days and disappear on its own.

Diarrhea may be acute (short-term), which is usually related to bacterial or viral infections, or chronic (long-term), which is usually related to a functional disorder or intestinal disease.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea may be caused by a number of conditions, including:

  • a bacterial infection
  • a viral infection
  • food intolerances or allergies
  • parasites
  • a reaction to medications
  • an intestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • a functional bowel disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • a result of surgery on the stomach or gall bladder

Dehydration can be a serious side effect of diarrhea. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, less-frequent urination, dry skin, fatigue, and light-headedness.

In children, additional symptoms may include dry mouth and tongue; no tears when crying; no wet diapers for more than 3 hours; sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks; high fever; listlessness; irritability; and skin that does not flatten when pinched and released.

Many people suffer "traveler's diarrhea" caused by a bacterial infection or a parasite, or even food poisoning.

Severe diarrhea may indicate a serious disease, and it is important to consult a physician if the symptoms persist or affect daily activities. Identifying the cause of the problem may be difficult.

What are the symptoms of diarrhea?

The following are the most common symptoms for diarrhea, however, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • cramping
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • nausea
  • loose, watery stools
  • fever
  • bloody stools
  • dehydration
  • incontinence

The symptoms of diarrhea may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is diarrhea diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history, physical examination, medical history, and laboratory tests for blood and urine, the physician may request:

  • stool culture - checks for the presence of abnormal bacteria in the digestive tract that may cause diarrhea and other problems. A small sample of stool is collected and sent to a laboratory by your physician's office. In two or three days, the test will show whether abnormal bacteria are present.
  • additional blood tests
  • fasting tests - identify food intolerance or allergies
  • sigmoidoscopy - a diagnostic procedure that allows the physician to examine the inside of a portion of the large intestine, and is helpful in identifying the causes of diarrhea, abdominal pain, constipation, abnormal growths, and bleeding. A short, flexible, lighted tube, called a sigmoidoscope, is inserted into the intestine through the rectum. The scope blows air into the intestine to inflate it and make viewing the inside easier.
  • colonoscopy
  • imaging tests - rule out structural abnormalities

Treatment for diarrhea:

Specific treatment will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disorder
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disorder
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment usually involves replacing lost fluids, and may include antibiotics when bacterial infections are the cause.

When should a traveler seek medical attention for diarrhea?

Diarrhea can be a symptom of other conditions; therefore, it is better to not self-medicate. Medical attention is necessary when the primary cause of diarrhea is not known, and/or if the following occur:

  • loose, watery stool that lasts for more than three days
  • severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • a fever of 102º Fahrenheit or higher
  • blood in your stool or black, tarry stools
  • signs of dehydration

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