Diarrhea: Ultimate Guide
Diarrhea is something that almost everyone gets at some point in their life. Most of the time it goes away within a few days without any medical intervention.
Other times, there are causes for concern and a doctor may need to help determine why you’re having it and what can be done to make it go away.
We’ve compiled some helpful information so you can understand the signs that there may be something else going on and what you should do if you have a case of diarrhea.
What Is Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is defined as loose and watery stools or bowel movements that occur more than three times in one day.
Acute diarrhea is a short-term bout of diarrhea that usually lasts no more than two days, sometimes it can last a little bit longer. This type usually goes away on its own without the need for medical treatment.
There are over-the-counter medications you can take for relief, or you can try adjusting your diet.
If you have diarrhea for more than a few days, you could have chronic diarrhea, which may be an indication there’s some underlying issue causing it and a doctor can help you figure out what this is.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is something that can be caused by numerous things. Some of the most common include:
- Food intolerances, such as dairy and/or gluten
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Contaminated food and water
- Gastroenteritis bacteria
- Viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus
- Diseases that affect the colon, small intestine, or stomach such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease
- Certain medications like antibiotics and antacids
Diarrhea can be caused by infections of the digestive tract spread through contaminated drinks and foods. These are known as foodborne illnesses.
Sometimes you may have diarrhea and you don’t know why. If it’s something that goes away after a couple of days, it’s not something you should worry too much about.
It’s only a cause for concern if it happens often and it doesn’t go away after a few days.
Traveler’s diarrhea is a disorder of the digestive tract that is caused by eating foods and drinking beverages that are contaminated with bacteria and parasites, usually occurring during travels. This can lead to abdominal cramps and loose stools, but it isn’t serious and generally goes away on its own.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a disease that can cause diarrhea. This condition affects the colon and large intestine, and it leads to irritation and inflammation.
Doctors will diagnose this condition through blood tests and stool samples.
Who Is at Risk for Diarrhea?
Anyone can get diarrhea. People of all ages, men, women, children, and adults can all end up with diarrhea at some point in their lives.
Children typically have around two instances of diarrhea every year, while adults have acute diarrhea about once a year.
Even though almost anyone can get diarrhea, there are certain people that do need to worry when they do. Children, people with weakened immune systems, and older adults should take extra steps to ensure they are getting enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
Signs and Symptoms of Diarrhea
Normally, the signs and symptoms of diarrhea include:
- Loose and watery stools
- Abdominal cramps
- Urgent feeling of needing to use the restroom
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling of being dehydrated
These symptoms typically mean its a normal case of diarrhea, something that goes away on its own within a couple of days.
Something you want to keep a close eye out for is signs of dehydration. If you’re having frequent diarrhea, you need to take in extra fluids. Some signs of dehydration include:
- Excessive thirst
- Urinating less than normal
- Not sweating normally
- Dry skin
- Dark colored urine
If you feel like you might be dehydrated, it’s important to try to replace the fluids you’re losing from diarrhea.
When Should You Seek Medical Attention for Diarrhea?
Diarrhea isn’t just something that’s an inconvenient part of life; it can also indicate there might be something going on that might need medical attention.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you’ll want to consult with a healthcare provider.
- Severe abdominal pain
- Bloody or black stools
- Severe rectal pain
- Fever of more than 102 degrees F
- You have diarrhea for over two days and it doesn’t seem to be getting better
- Lasts for over 24 hours
- Dry mouth and/or cries without tears
- Fever over 102 degrees F
- Unresponsive, irritable, sleepier than usual
- Sunken appearance to cheeks, abdomen, and eyes
- They have skin that does not flatten when it’s pinched and released
Diagnosing the Cause of Diarrhea
If you’re having frequent diarrhea and it doesn’t go away within a couple of days, a doctor can perform a variety of tests to determine what the cause might be and figure out how to help you. Some tests might include:
- Stool test
- Blood test
- Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy
A stool test is usually performed when a doctor has concerns that your diarrhea is caused by a parasite or bacteria. A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy looks at the lining of the colon to try and determine the reason for the diarrhea.
Complications From Diarrhea
There are two major complications that can occur with frequent diarrhea:
When you have diarrhea frequently, you’re losing a lot of fluids. If you’re not replacing them, you may end up dehydrated. Water is a critical element that your body needs to function properly.
Dehydration occurs when there is more water leaving your body than what your body is taking in. Dehydration can lead to fainting, lightheadedness, a drop in blood pressure, severe weakness, confusion, and even shock.
With prolonged diarrhea, your body ends up losing important electrolytes. To replenish these electrolytes, here are some good foods you can try:
- Dairy (just avoid dairy if the cause of your diarrhea is dairy)
Malabsorption is when the gastrointestinal tract, or GI tract, fails to absorb the nutrients from the food you’re eating.
In normal situations, the nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream from the wall of the small intestine, and then it travels its way through the digestive tract.
With malabsorption, the wall to the small intestine is damaged from bacteria or parasites, which prevents the digested nutrients to get through. The most common symptoms of malabsorption are:
- Weight loss
- Frequent diarrhea
- Lightly-colored and bulky stools
- Stools that stick to the toilet bowl and are hard to flush
Medical Treatments for Diarrhea
The type of treatment for diarrhea greatly depends on what the main cause is. Some popular at home medications you can try for acute diarrhea are:
- Loperamide or Imodium: this medication helps your body absorb more liquid by making food move more slowly through the intestines
- Bismuth or Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate: this option for medications provides more balance on how any fluids you consume move through the digestive tract.
If you have chronic diarrhea and end up dehydrated from it, your doctor will want you to increase your fluids. You can do this by drinking more water or sipping on broth.
If you’re unable to keep the fluids down, a doctor may suggest giving you the fluids through an IV in your arm.
When you have diarrhea, you should drink plenty of fluids, such as sports drinks, water, fruit juices, and salty broths. Children that have diarrhea should be given rehydration solutions, such as Pedialyte to ensure they stay hydrated.
One of the main treatments for diarrhea is to treat the underlying condition that causes the diarrhea. Certain medication may be the cause of the diarrhea, in which a doctor may suggest adjusting the medication.
Some antibiotics can lead to diarrhea. A doctor may suggest lowering your dose or switching your medication.
Dos and Don’ts When You Have Diarrhea
Diarrhea can be caused by numerous factors, making it difficult to know exactly how to manage it. There are some things you can do to keep an eye on it to make sure you do not need medical attention.
Keep an Eye on Your Temperature
When you have diarrhea, you’ll want to check your temperature on a regular basis. Anything below 100.4 degrees F or below indicates there is no fever present. A fever can be an indication there’s a more serious condition like an infection.
Slow sipping on clear fluids is the ideal way to stay hydrated when you have a case of diarrhea. If you drink too much at one time, your stomach can become irritated, which can make it worse for you.
Keep Track of How Many Times You Have Diarrhea
It’s important to keep track of how many occurrences of diarrhea you have. If you do need to seek medical treatment, this information can be crucial in helping a doctor determine what the cause is and how they can best help you.
Eat Small Meals
When you have an upset stomach causing you diarrhea, it’s helpful to eat smaller meals rather than normal sized ones. Eating too much food at once can make the diarrhea worse. When you do eat, try to avoid dairy and fried foods.
Don’t Ignore Serious Symptoms
Serious symptoms can be an indication that there’s something severe going on inside your body, which is something you’re not going to want to ignore. Serious symptoms can include a fever of 100.4F, diarrhea that lasts more than 48 hours, weakness, dizziness, dark urine, and abdominal pain.
Avoid Handling Food Other People Will Eat
When you’re sick with diarrhea, it’s crucial to avoid handling other people’s food. Pathogens that lead to it can end up being transmitted through the food, putting other people at risk of getting sick too. You should wash your hands frequently and avoid preparing food until you have been symptom-free for up to 24 hours.
If You Have a Fever, Avoid Taking Anti-Diarrhea Medications
Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications are effective, but should not be taken if you have a fever. This is because dangerous bacteria can end up building up inside of your intestines, leading to serious complications.
Always consult with a medical professional before taking this type of medication.
Steps You Can Take to Prevent Diarrhea
Practicing good hygiene is one of the best ways to prevent diarrhea. This means you should always wash your hands, especially after using the restroom and before preparing food.
Since there are various factors that can cause diarrhea, preventing it will vary on a case-by-case basis. Some things that you can consider trying are:
- Cutting dairy
- Eat less gluten
- Eliminate coffee and alcohol from the diet
- Eat smaller and more frequent meals
- Slow down when eating
- Avoid eating before bed
- Try to eat more low-fiber foods
If you’re having regular bouts of diarrhea, it’s important to learn what your triggers are so you can do your best to avoid them. Your diarrhea may be caused by your diet, so it can help you to keep track of what you eat in a food journal.
When you’re traveling, you’ll want to take extra care that you don’t end up with Traveler’s diarrhea. This is common in places such as Mexico, Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Preventions steps you can take include:
- Use only bottled and purified water for drinking and even when you’re brushing your teeth
- If you have to use tap water, you have to make sure you use iodine tablets
- Any food you eat should be cooked thoroughly and served hot
- Avoid eating unwashed and raw vegetables and fruits
- Keep your hands clean, especially right after using the bathroom and before preparing meals
If you end up with severe diarrhea while traveling, you might need to see a doctor for antibiotics. They’ll want you to take extra measures to make sure you stay hydrated.
There are also over-the-counter medications you can take to help with any pain and discomfort.