There are very many causes of Diarrhea. Certain foods, chemical laxatives, prescription drugs, infection, disease, stress, even travel can be the underlying cause of this common disorder. The treatment in your case may be very simple. But if it is constant, and seems to be ongoing, explosive or severe, some special testing may be required. By working closely with your Charleston Gastroenterology Center doctor, effective treatment is almost always available.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The most common cause of diarrhea is viral gastroenteritis, a mild viral infection that goes away on its own within a few days. This condition is often called the stomach flu. Viral gastroenteritis often occurs in mini-epidemics in schools, neighborhoods, or families.
Food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea are two other common causes of diarrhea. They occur as a result of eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria or parasites.
Medications, especially antibiotics, laxatives containing magnesium, and chemotherapy for cancer treatment, can also cause diarrhea.
The following medical conditions can also lead to diarrhea:
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Lactose intolerance
- Malabsorption syndromes (such as lactose intolerance)
Other less common causes of diarrhea include:
- Carcinoid syndrome
- Nerve disorders like autonomic neuropathy or diabetic neuropathy
- Partial removal of the stomach (gastrectomy)
- Radiation therapy
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, an urgent need to use the bathroom, or loss of bowel control. Some infections that cause diarrhea can also cause a fever and chills or bloody stools.
Signs and tests
Adults with any of the following symptoms should see a health care provider:
- signs of dehydration
- diarrhea for more than 2 days
- severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
- a fever of 102 degrees or higher
- stools containing blood or pus
- stools that are black and tarry
- Diarrhea is not usually harmful, but it can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem.
Drink plenty of fluid to avoid becoming dehydrated. Start with sips of any fluid other than caffeinated beverages. Milk may prolong loose stools, but also provides needed fluids and nourishment. Drinking milk may be fine for mild diarrhea. For moderate and severe diarrhea, electrolyte solutions available in drugstores are usually best.
Active cultures of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) make diarrhea less severe and shorten its duration. Probiotics can be found in yogurt with active or live cultures and in supplements.
Foods like rice, dry toast, and bananas can sometimes help with diarrhea.
Avoid over-the-counter antidiarrhea medications unless specifically instructed to use one by your doctor. Certain infections can be made worse by these drugs. When you have diarrhea, your body is trying to get rid of whatever is causing it (contaminated food, virus, etc.). The medicine can interfere with this process.
Get plenty of rest.
Your doctor will take a complete medical history and do a physical examination, paying careful attention to your abdomen.
Questions that the doctor may ask include:
- When did your diarrhea start?
- What is the color and consistency of your stool?
- Do you have blood in your stool?
- Are you passing large amounts of mucus with your stool?
- What other symptoms do you have?
- Do you have abdominal pain or severe cramping with the diarrhea?
- Do you have fever or chills?
- Are any other family members sick?
- Have you recently traveled out of the country?
- Have you possibly been exposed to unpurified water or spoiled food?
- What makes your pain worse? Stress? Specific foods?
- Have you had abdominal surgery?
- Have you taken antibiotics recently?
- What medications do you take? Any recent changes to your medications?
- Do you drink coffee? How much?
- Do you drink alcohol? How much? How often?
- Do you smoke? How much each day?
- Are you on a special diet?
Your doctor may ask you to obtain one or more stool samples in special containers to test for signs of inflammation and infection and to identify an organism that may be causing infection.
Call your doctor if:
- You have blood or pus in your stools
- Your stools are black
- You have abdominal pain that is not relieved by a bowel movement
- You have symptoms of dehydration such as light-headedness when sitting or standing up
- You have a fever above 101F, or your child has a fever above 100.4F, along with diarrhea
- You have foul-smelling or oily-looking stools
- You have recently traveled to a foreign country
- You have eaten with other people who also have diarrhea
- You have started on a new medication
- Your diarrhea does not get better in 5 days (2 days for an infant or child), or worsens before that
- Your or your child has been vomiting for more than 12 hours (in a newborn under 3 months you should call as soon as vomiting or diarrhea begins)
Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating.
Teach children to not put objects in their mouth.
When taking antibiotics, try eating food with Lactobacillus acidophilus, a healthy bacteria. This helps replenish the good bacteria that antibiotics can kill. Yogurt with active or live cultures is a good source of these healthy bacteria.
Use alcohol-based hand gel frequently.
When traveling to underdeveloped areas, follow the steps below to avoid diarrhea:
- Drink only bottled water and do NOT use ice.
- Do NOT eat uncooked vegetables or fruits that do not have peels.
- Do NOT eat raw shellfish or undercooked meat.
- Do NOT consume dairy products.