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What is diarrhea?
Diarrheaâ€”loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one dayâ€”is a common problem that usually lasts a day or two and goes away on its own without any special treatment. However, prolonged diarrhea can be a sign of other problems. People with diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems. (See "What is dehydration?")
People of all ages can get diarrhea. The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be caused by a temporary problem, like an infection, or a chronic problem, like an intestinal disease. A few of the more common causes of diarrhea are
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 that can occur after gallbladder surgery.
In many cases, the cause of diarrhea cannot be found. As long as diarrhea goes away on its own, an extensive search for the cause is not usually necessary.
People who visit foreign countries are at risk for traveler's diarrhea, which is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or, sometimes, parasites. Traveler's diarrhea is a particular problem for people visiting developing countries. Visitors to the United States, Canada, most European countries, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand do not face much risk for traveler's diarrhea. (See "Preventing Traveler's Diarrhea.")
What are the symptoms?
Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, or an urgent need to use the bathroom. Depending on the cause, a person may have a fever or bloody stools.
Diarrhea can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). The acute form, which lasts less than 4 weeks, is usually related to a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. Chronic diarrhea lasts more than 4 weeks and is usually related to functional disorders like irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel diseases like celiac disease.
Diarrhea in Children
Children can have acute or chronic forms of diarrhea. Causes include bacteria, viruses, parasites, medications, functional disorders, and food sensitivities. Infection with the rotavirus is the most common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Rotavirus diarrhea usually resolves in 3 to 9 days.
Medications to treat diarrhea in adults can be dangerous to children and should be given only under a doctor's guidance.
Diarrhea can be dangerous in newborns and infants. In small children, severe diarrhea lasting just a day or two can lead to dehydration. Because a child can die from dehydration within a few days, the main treatment for diarrhea in children is rehydration. (See "Preventing Dehydration".)
Take your child to the doctor if any of the following symptoms appear:
What is dehydration?
General signs of dehydration include
Signs of dehydration in children include
If you suspect that you or your child is dehydrated, call the doctor immediately. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization.
When should a doctor be consulted?
Although usually not harmful, diarrhea can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem. You should see the doctor if any of the following is true:
If your child has diarrhea, do not hesitate to call the doctor for advice. Diarrhea can be dangerous in children if too much fluid is lost and not replaced quickly.
What tests might the doctor do?
Diagnostic tests to find the cause of diarrhea include the following:
What is the treatment?
In most cases, replacing lost fluid to prevent dehydration is the only treatment necessary. (See "Preventing Dehydration" below.) Medicines that stop diarrhea may be helpful in some cases, but they are not recommended for people whose diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection or parasiteâ€”stopping the diarrhea traps the organism in the intestines, prolonging the problem. Instead, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics. Viral causes are either treated with medication or left to run their course, depending on the severity and type of the virus.
Dehydration occurs when the body has lost too much fluid and electrolytes (the salts potassium and sodium). The fluid and electrolytes lost during diarrhea need to be replaced promptlyâ€”the body cannot function properly without them. Dehydration is particularly dangerous for children, who can die from it within a matter of days.
Although water is extremely important in preventing dehydration, it does not contain electrolytes. To maintain electrolyte levels, you could have broth or soups, which contain sodium, and fruit juices, soft fruits, or vegetables, which contain potassium.
For children, doctors often recommend a special rehydration solution that contains the nutrients they need. You can buy this solution in the grocery store without a prescription. Examples include Pedialyte, Ceralyte, and Infalyte.
Tips About Food
Until diarrhea subsides, try to avoid milk products and foods that are greasy, high-fiber, or very sweet. These foods tend to aggravate diarrhea.
As you improve, you can add soft, bland foods to your diet, including bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, and baked chicken without the skin or fat. For children, the pediatrician may recommend what is called the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
Preventing Traveler's Diarrhea
Traveler's diarrhea happens when you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. You can take the following precautions to prevent traveler's diarrhea when you go abroad:
You can safely drink bottled water (if you are the one to break the seal), carbonated soft drinks, and hot drinks like coffee or tea.
Depending on where you are going and how long you are staying, your doctor may recommend that you take antibiotics before leaving to protect you from possible infection.
Hope Through Research
NIDDK's Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition supports basic and clinical research into gastrointestinal conditions, including diarrhea. Among other areas, researchers are studying how the processes of absorption and secretion in the digestive tract affect the content and consistency of stool, the mechanisms by which E. coli infection causes diarrhea, and chemical compounds that may be useful in treating diarrhea.
Points to Remember