What is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a condition with varied meanings. Generally diarrhea stool (feces) is passed frequently (i.e. more than three times in a day). But diarrhea is also labeled as such when the stools are watery.

Unexplained Diarrhea

How Common is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a very common problem. An average adult experiences four episodes of diarrhea per year. Most cases of diarrhea resolve spontaneously within few days. When the diarrhea continues and does not resolve, it can be very distressing.

Symptoms of Diarrhea

If you are suffering from diarrhea, you will experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Loose, watery stools
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Abdominal cramps and discomfort
  • Generalized weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Blood in the stool
  • Weight loss

Causes of Unexplained Diarrhea

Diarrhea can be acute or chronic. There are different causes of both acute and chronic diarrhea.

  • If you are experiencing symptoms of diarrhea for more than four weeks, you will be diagnosed with chronic diarrhea.
  • If you have symptoms of diarrhea for less than four weeks, you are diagnosed as having acute diarrhea. Most patients recover within few days without any treatment.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Intestinal infections
  • Endocrine disorders (overactive thyroid gland, uncontrolled diabetes mellitus)
  • Food allergy or sensitivity
  • Celiac disease and other malabsorption syndromes
  • Medicine side effects

Sometimes your doctor may not be able to identify the cause of your chronic diarrhea, in these conditions it is labeled as unexplained diarrhea.

When to Consult a Doctor (Alarming Signs)?

Diarrhea is a common condition and most cases resolved within few days. If you experience any of the following symptoms, called alarming signs, you should consult a doctor for further evaluation and management.

  • Diarrhea lasting for four or more weeks
  • Blood in stools
  • Fever
  • Dehydration – signs of dehydration are excessive thirst, dry mouth, dark colored urine or no urine at all, dizziness, or lightheadedness.
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Severe abdominal pain that interferes with your activities

Prevention of Diarrhea

Diarrhea can be prevented by:

  • Maintaining good hygiene.
  • Thorough hand washing, especially after using washroom and before eating.
  • Avoiding consumption of unpasteurized milk.
  • Refraining from frequent reheating of foods.
  • Avoiding eating raw foods without washing them first.
  • Refrigerating foods promptly.
  • Never leaving cooked foods at room temperature for more than two hour.

Complications of Diarrhea

  • Unusual weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Growth failure / short stature
  • Generalized weakness
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Syncope (fainting)
  • Seizures

Diagnosis of Diarrhea

Your doctor will first take a detailed history and perform the relevant physical examination. Most cases can be diagnosed with a history alone. The doctor will need a history of recent foreign travel, your medication list, and eating habits.

Your doctor will also order certain blood, stool, and urine tests to find the cause of diarrhea. If a cause is not found, your doctor may advised for further specialized testing. This includes:

  • X-rays of your digestive tract.
  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to look your intestine and rectum for any abnormalities.
  • Special breath tests are available to test for lactose intolerance, or bacterial overgrowth of the small bowel.

In some cases, your doctor may also recommend a trial of treatment before more invasive tests.

Treatment of Diarrhea

If you or someone you know is suffering from chronic diarrhea, you should consult your doctor and talk about your symptoms. Chronic diarrhea is often a treatable condition. The treatment depends upon underlying cause of chronic diarrhea. Most persons show improvement in their symptoms by following conservative management.

  • Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated – (drink at least 8 – 12 glasses of water daily)
  • Eating a high-fiber diet
  • Avoiding laxatives and other medicines that promote diarrhea
  • Taking anti-diarrheal medicines
  • Avoiding certain foods, milk and dairy products if you have a food allergy or lactose intolerance
  • Avoiding a gluten die (wheat, etc.) if you are suffering from celiac disease

Surgical Management of Diarrhea

Most cases of chronic diarrhea are managed with the above management. Surgery is often not required.