Diarrhea is typically defined as three or more loose bowel movements within a 24-hour period. It’s a common condition, often short-lived, and usually not serious. However, if diarrhea persists, it can indicate underlying health issues.
There are three types of diarrhea:
- Acute: This most-common form of diarrhea usually lasts one to two days and resolves itself. Nearly 48 million cases of acute diarrhea occur in the United States each year.
- Persistent: This condition can last two to four weeks.
- Chronic: If diarrhea persists for four or more weeks, with symptoms that are continual or that come and go, it is considered chronic. It could be a symptom of other health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which includes Crohn’s disease and colitis.
Diarrhea may cause dehydration, robbing the body of sufficient liquids and electrolytes to function well. It can also hamper the body’s ability to absorb enough nutrients from food.
Diarrhea typically announces itself with an urgent need to go to the bathroom. In addition to loose, watery, and possibly more frequent bowel movements, signs of typical diarrhea may include:
- Abdominal cramps and pain
Symptoms of more serious issues, such as diarrhea caused by an infection, may include:
- Blood or mucus in the stool
- Weight loss
Symptoms of diarrhea-caused malabsorption or dehydration include:
- Less-frequent urine and urine that is dark
- Weight loss
- Gas and bloating
The diagnosis begins with an exam that could include listening to the stomach with a stethoscope and a review of medical history. The gastroenterologist may also order tests to determine if certain conditions, such as infections, food allergies, or digestive tract problems, are causing chronic diarrhea. These test include:
- Blood exam– A blood sample could reveal the presence of diseases or other disorders.
- Stool exam– The lab may test a stool sample for the presence of bacteria, blood, parasites, or disease.
- A fasting test – To rule out whether a food intolerance or allergy is the culprit.
- Colonoscopy – To examine the entire colon, the gastroenterologist inserts a flexible tube equipped with a camera through the rectum.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy – Similar to a colonoscopy, this procedure provides a view of just the last two feet of the intestines, or lower colon.
- Upper endoscopy – In this procedure, a flexible tube with a camera, called an endoscope, is inserted to view the lining of the upper gastrointestinal tract.
You should see your gastroenterologist if you have any alarming signs such as bleeding, weight loss, abdominal pain, or persistent chronic symptoms. Some over-the-counter medicines such as Pepto-Bismol®, Kaopectate®, and Imodium® can provide relief for adults, but are not advised if the patient has blood in the stool. The gastroenterologist may also prescribe:
- Prescription drugs – Antibiotics could treat diarrhea caused by parasites or bacteria, while other medications may address irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, or colitis.
- Fluid replacement – The body will need fluids, electrolytes, and salts, so fruit juices and broths might be advised. If the patient cannot keep these fluids down, intravenous (IV) fluids may be administered.