What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a very common digestive complaint that will affect most people at some time in their lives. It can involve frequent, urgent, loose and watery bowel movements, often with cramp-like pain in and bloating of the abdomen.

Abdomen

The part of the body that lies between the chest and the pelvis.

Signs and symptoms

If you have diarrhea, you can have sudden, watery, loose or runny stools often accompanied by the following:

  • Abdominal bloating and cramp-like pain;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Constant urge to use the toilet, and;
  • Tiredness.

Diarrhea can be acute (less than 14 days) or chronic (longer-term). Seek medical attention if severe diarrhea lasts for more than 12 hours, or if you experience the following symptoms:

  • High fever;
  • Blood, undigested food and mucus in your stool;
  • Nausea and constant vomiting, and;
  • Inability to pass urine, feeling weak and dizzy (signs of dehydration). 

Abdominal cramps with bloating and diarrhoea, runny stools, bloating and nausea, traveller's diarrhoea, urgent bowel movement.Diarrhea causes abdominal bloating and pain. 

Dehydration

The state of insufficient hydration; excessive loss of water; requiring more water in order to function normally.

Mucus

A thick, viscous liquid that is secreted for lubrication and to form a protective lining over certain tissues.

Causes

Diarrhea is a symptom of an underlying bowel disturbance, which can be caused by numerous factors. As most episodes are acute and tend to pass within a few days, the cause may never be known. With infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses, the invading germs cause the lining of the intestines to become inflamed. This inflammation stops water from being absorbed, causes watery stools and can prevent proper digestion of food. 

Infectious agents

Viruses

Viruses can often become widespread in places where people are in close contact with each other. Nursing homes, schools and offices are often centers of diarrhea outbreaks. Hepatitis A, Cytomegalovirus and Rotavirus are all implicated. The main cause of childhood diarrhea is Rotavirus, whereas Norovirus affects all ages.

Bacteria

Bacteria can find their way into your body via contaminated food or drinks that have been handled by unwashed hands. You may experience fever, vomiting, blood in the diarrhea and severe pain in your abdomen. Common bacterial infections are:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)  -  the different types of E. coli bacteria are the most common cause of traveler's diarrhea, caused by fecal matter contaminating drinking water as a result of poor sanitation, and;
  • Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus, Vibrio cholerae and Campylobacter bacteria are also common bacteria that can lead to diarrhea.

Parasites

Parasites are usually ingested via contaminated drinking water. The most common culprits are Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica and Giardia lamblia.

Medications

Diarrhea can be a side effect of many medications including antibiotics, anti-cancer medications, magnesium-containing antacids, statins (medications used to lower cholesterol) and medications for blood pressure, weight loss, anti-HIV and arthritis. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are associated with Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that infects your intestines when antibiotics have removed your normal gut bacteria.

Food intolerance 

If you have intolerance to foods such as spicy foods, fruit sugars (fructose), some artificial sweeteners and dairy products (lactose intolerance), you may develop diarrhea.

Chronic disease or disorders of your intestines

There are several conditions that may increase your risk of chronic diarrhea, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease, pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis and ischemic colitis.

Surgery

Bowel resection surgery, gall bladder surgery (cholecystectomy) and abdominal surgeries all may leave you prone to developing diarrhea.

Cancer

Bowel cancer may cause chronic diarrhea.

Hormone disorders

Conditions such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes can affect the bowels and cause diarrhea.

Other causes

Competitive running, alcohol abuse, too much coffee, too much vitamin C and emotional stress or anxiety can all affect your bowels.

Abdomen

The part of the body that lies between the chest and the pelvis.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Bowel resection

A type of surgery, in which a part of your bowel (small or large intestine) is removed.

Cytomegalovirus

A common herpes-type virus that usually only causes a mild flu-like illness in healthy people, but that can cause a range of illnesses in people with compromised immune systems or babies of women who are infected while pregnant.

Diabetes

A metabolic disorder that is caused by problems with insulin secretion and regulation and which is characterized by high blood sugar levels. Also known as diabetes mellitus.

Gall bladder

A small organ attached to the liver that stores bile until it is released into the small intestine, to aid the digestion of food.

Intestines

The part of the digestive system from the stomach to the anus.

Pancreatitis

Inflammation of the pancreas.

Parasites

An organism that lives off another organism.

Rotavirus

A type of virus that is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in babies and children.

Hepatitis A

Liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis A virus, which is spread via direct contact with food, drinks or objects contaminated by the feces of an infected person.

Risk factors

You are more likely to get diarrhea if you are in one of the following groups of people:

  • If you have been diagnosed with a condition such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis;
  • If you have a weakened immune system;
  • If you take medications such as antacids, antibiotics or antidepressants;
  • If you travel to developing parts of the world such as South-East Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, or are living in poor sanitary conditions, and;
  • If you live with someone who currently has diarrhea - many types are highly infectious and can be easily spread.

Diabetes

A metabolic disorder that is caused by problems with insulin secretion and regulation and which is characterized by high blood sugar levels. Also known as diabetes mellitus.

Inflammatory bowel disease

A group of conditions characterized by chronic, episodic inflammation of the bowels, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Pancreatitis

Inflammation of the pancreas.

Types

There are a number of reasons you may experience diarrhea. Quite often it is a result of food poisoning, a bacterial or viral infection, side effects of a medication, food intolerance, parasites, or a disease of the gastrointestinal tract. Infectious gastroenteritis (stomach flu) can also cause fever and vomiting and is the most common cause of diarrhea. Traveler's diarrhea is also a common problem for visitors to developing countries. The following are the most common types of diarrhea:

Osmotic diarrhea

Osmotic diarrhea occurs when too much water is drawn into the bowels, often by poor digestion or substances your body cannot absorb. Digestive conditions such as coeliac disease or lactose intolerance can cause this type of diarrhea. Some types of laxatives, vitamin C, excessive magnesium and chewing gum containing sorbitol can also cause osmotic diarrhea. Once you stop ingesting these products, the diarrhea will usually clear up quickly.

Inflammatory diarrhea

This type of diarrhea is caused by inflammation in your bowel and can be caused by a wide range of factors; inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, or infections caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses can cause inflammatory diarrhea. Though much less common, bowel cancer and tuberculosis can also cause inflammatory diarrhea.

Motility-related diarrhea

This type of diarrhea is caused by food moving through your digestive system too quickly and not being absorbed properly. This can be due to a physical or nerve-related issue. If you have been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), diabetes, have undergone bowel surgery, or have fistulas (abnormal connections within your intestines), you may have motility-related diarrhea.

Exudative diarrhea

This type of diarrhea may contain both blood and pus. It is often seen with inflammatory bowel disease, or caused by an infection such as Shigella.

Secretory diarrhea

This type of acute diarrhea is often caused by infection with bacteria such Vibrio cholerae or E. coli that results in overstimulation of mucus secretions in your bowel.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Diabetes

A metabolic disorder that is caused by problems with insulin secretion and regulation and which is characterized by high blood sugar levels. Also known as diabetes mellitus.

Food intolerance

A non-allergic sensitivity to certain foods. Food intolerances cause problematic reactions in the body, but do not trigger any immune response, so are not true allergies.

Gastrointestinal tract

The membrane-lined series of organs extending from the mouth to the anus through which food passes during digestion.

Inflammatory bowel disease

A group of conditions characterized by chronic, episodic inflammation of the bowels, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Intestines

The part of the digestive system from the stomach to the anus.

Mucus

A thick, viscous liquid that is secreted for lubrication and to form a protective lining over certain tissues.

Parasites

An organism that lives off another organism.

Pus

A bodily fluid that is the result of an inflammatory response at an infection site. Its color can range from whitish to yellow to green, depending on the composition. Pus is mainly composed of dead bacteria, white blood cells and cellular debris.

Sorbitol

A sweet-tasting compound that may be used as a substitute for cane sugar, as it is absorbed more slowly.

Methods for diagnosis

If you have acute diarrhea, it will normally resolve or significantly improve within 12 hours. If it lasts longer and if you have other symptoms such as severe pain or blood in your stool, you may wish to visit your doctor. There are a range of tests and procedures available to diagnose what is causing your diarrhea.

Medical history

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, recent travel, if you have you been eating out, any recent illnesses, your medications and your family history.

Physical examination

Your doctor may check to see if you have abdominal bloating or pain. Physical examination can reveal if you are dehydrated. If your diarrhea is chronic and ongoing, you may be given a digital rectal examination (DRE) to check if there are any physical problems within your rectum. This involves your doctor inserting a gloved finger into your anus to check for lumps or any abnormalities.

Blood and stool tests

These tests can check your blood for any underlying health conditions or inflammation. Stool microscopy, culture and sensitivity will be done to check if you have any parasites or unusual bacteria in your stool. 

Intolerance testing

Your doctor may suggest tests for food intolerance, or ask you to stop eating certain foods to see if your symptoms improve.

Endoscopy

In some circumstances, the internal lining of your bowel may need to be examined using endoscopy. This can be particularly useful in chronic (prolonged) diarrhea, or diarrhea of a possibly serious or unknown cause. An endoscopy involves inserting an endoscope into the intestines, either via the mouth (gastroscopy) or rectum (colonoscopy). You may be given a mild sedative to help you relax during the procedure and often will be asked not to eat for 12 hours prior to the test. The endoscope can take videos and photos and give your doctor a highly-detailed view of the bowels, helping to locate areas of inflammation or tumors. A biopsy can also be carried out by endoscopy to aid in the diagnosis of conditions such as coeliac disease and Crohn's disease, and identify the presence of any tumors.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Endoscope

A thin, flexible tube with an attached light and camera that is used for viewing internal body parts.

Stool microscopy, culture and sensitivity

A stool test used to check if there is a disease-causing organism or virus in the digestive tract with the added benefit of finding which medications would be most useful in targeting that organism or virus.

Food intolerance

A non-allergic sensitivity to certain foods. Food intolerances cause problematic reactions in the body, but do not trigger any immune response, so are not true allergies.

Intestines

The part of the digestive system from the stomach to the anus.

Parasites

An organism that lives off another organism.

Rectum

The final part of the large intestine, leading to the anus.

Types of treatment

Most cases of diarrhea will clear up at home without much treatment. The most important issue though, is to avoid dehydration, especially in young children and babies. Untreated diarrhea can be life-threatening for young ones, being the biggest cause of death in this age group in developing nations.

Home care

Drinking increased amounts of clear fluids such as water, juice, cordial and broth and avoiding tea, coffee, alcohol, dairy products and spicy and greasy foods will improve the diarrhea symptoms. As diarrhea can cause weakness, bed rest is recommended. Oral rehydration solutions are a good way to keep up your fluid, salt and sugar levels and can be bought from your pharmacist. Once the diarrhea stops, try eating starchy foods such as rice, bananas, dry toast and potatoes. On the third day, try small amounts of yoghurt containing live bacterial cultures and grilled or steamed meat.

Medications

Drugs called anti-motility medications stop diarrhea by slowing down your intestinal movement (peristalsis). These are useful for socially-embarrassing diarrhea, but if you are being treated for a bacterial or parasitic infection, they can make it worse. Always speak to your doctor before taking any medication to stop diarrhea.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics will only work if you have been diagnosed with a particular bacteria. Antibiotics will not help if your diarrhea is caused by a virus and may, in fact, make it worse.

Hospital treatment

This is only for serious or complicated cases. Young children, or those at a risk of dehydration may be hospitalized. Rehydration is normally done via an intravenous (IV) drip.

Treating the underlying cause

If you have an inflammatory bowel disease, food intolerance or another medical condition, this needs to be addressed. Your doctor may recommend you see a specialist.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Dehydration

The state of insufficient hydration; excessive loss of water; requiring more water in order to function normally.

Food intolerance

A non-allergic sensitivity to certain foods. Food intolerances cause problematic reactions in the body, but do not trigger any immune response, so are not true allergies.

Inflammatory bowel disease

A group of conditions characterized by chronic, episodic inflammation of the bowels, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Virus

A microscopic infectious agent that replicates itself only within cells of living hosts; a piece of nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) wrapped in a protein coat.

Potential complications

The main complications of diarrhea come from dehydration, which can quickly become life-threatening in the elderly, those with a weakened immune system and particularly small children and babies. If your child becomes weak, dizzy, passes less urine, has fast and deep breathing and sunken eyes, this calls for immediate medical attention. If you are over 60 years of age, or have a cardiovascular condition such as heart disease or a history of stroke, or if you are being treated with chemotherapy, you can become seriously ill after only a few hours of diarrhea. Other complications may include:

  • Malnutrition - which leads to weakness;
  • Dehydration  -  watch for sunken eyes, lack of energy, dizziness, dry skin and a lack of tears or urine in children;
  • Anemia - symptoms include a pale and exhausted appearance;
  • Electrolyte imbalance - this can result in dizziness, muscle spasms or cramps and fatigue, and; 
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by E. coli  -  this is a very rare condition that affects young children. If your child has blood in their diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately.

Anemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Dehydration

The state of insufficient hydration; excessive loss of water; requiring more water in order to function normally.

Malnutrition

A condition in which a person does not receive the right amount of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and proteins.

Stroke

A disruption in the oxygen supply to the blood, due to an artery leading to the brain becoming blocked or ruptured.

Prognosis

Diarrhea usually tends to improve within a few days without any treatment, or once the underlying cause is removed or treated. Have plenty of rest and keep hydrated while you are recovering. Stay away from swimming pools, nursing homes, schools or any other heavily-populated places for 48 hours after you have recovered. If your diarrhea is caused by an infectious agent, the following timescales for recovery usually apply:

  • Norovirus - between 3-8 days;
  • Rotavirus - about two days;
  • Giardiasis - about two weeks, and;
  • Salmonella, Campylobacter - between 2-7 days.

Rotavirus

A type of virus that is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in babies and children.

Prevention

There are many simple day-to-day measures you can take to reduce your chance of getting diarrhea, including the following:

  • Always wash your hands after using the toilet, touching animals, handling food (especially meat), changing nappies, sneezing/coughing, or touching doors or furniture in public toilets; 
  • Teach small children to wash their hands after going to the toilet and to avoid putting things in their mouths;
  • Use a hand sanitizer if you cannot wash your hands;
  • Take care to refrigerate foods after cooking and properly reheat food. Always cover dishes to avoid contact from flies or pets, and;
  • Always keep your kitchen and food preparation areas clean. Be careful not to cross-contaminate other foods with raw meat or unpasteurized products.

Wash hands after using toilet, wash hands before cooking, wash hands after handling food, wash hands after changing nappies.Hand washing can significantly reduce spreading of diarrhea-causing infections. 

When travelling, the following measures will reduce your chances of developing diarrhea:

  • Only drink from sealed bottles or cans, do not use ice in drinks and brush your teeth using bottled water;
  • Only eat well-cooked foods. Avoid salads, pre-cut fruit and vegetables and any foods that have been left on benches. Avoid dairy foods unless they are refrigerated and produced by recognized brands. The general rule 'boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it' may be useful, and; 
  • Get vaccinated - children can be protected from Rotavirus by receiving an oral vaccination. 

Rotavirus

A type of virus that is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in babies and children.