Diarrhea Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Everything You Need to Know About Diarrhea

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Diarrhea is defined as loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day. Diarrhea usually goes away on its own without any special treatment. However, prolonged diarrhea can be a sign of other problems. People suffering from diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day.

Diarrhea can cause dehydration, a lack of fluid in the body, which can be particularly dangerous in children and the elderly.

But people of all ages can get diarrhea. The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.

Common Causes of Diarrhea

Diarrhea can be caused by a host of other conditions, including:

In many cases, the exact 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.

Associated Symptoms of Diarrhea

Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping abdominal pain, bloating, or nausea. The victim may also have a fever or bloody stools.

What Parents Should Know About Diarrhea in Children

Infection with the rotavirus is the most common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Rotavirus-related diarrhea usually resolves in 3 to 9 days. 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.

It is especially important to note that medications meant to treat diarrhea in adults can be dangerous for children and should be given only under a doctor's guidance.

When to Seek Treatment for Diarrhea

You should see the doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • You have diarrhea for more than 3 days.
  • You have severe pain in the abdomen or rectum.
  • You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • You see blood in your stool or have black, tarry stools.
  • You have signs of dehydration.

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.

Diarrhea Treatment and Diet

In most cases, replacing lost fluid to prevent dehydration is the only treatment necessary. 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 parasite — stopping the diarrhea traps the organism in the intestines, prolonging the problem. Instead, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. Viral causes may be treated with medication or left to run their course, depending on the severity and type of the virus.

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.

Victims of diarrheal illness should not prepare food or pour beverages for others.

Preventing Traveler's Diarrhea

Traveler's diarrhea happens when you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. It is common in developing countries. Take the following precautions to prevent traveler's diarrhea:

  • Do not drink any tap water, not even when brushing your teeth.
  • Do not drink unpasteurized milk or dairy products.
  • Do not use ice made from tap water.
  • Avoid all raw fruits and vegetables (including lettuce and fruit salad) unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself.
  • Do not eat raw or rare meat and fish.
  • Do not eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you.
  • Do not eat food from street vendors.

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.

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