Diarrhea is common among adults and children. In fact, this digestive tract illness is second only to respiratory infections in occurrence.
This common digestive tract illness is characterized by having loose watery stools three or more times a day. Acute diarrhea usually lasts two to three days and goes away on its own, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD).
In the U.S. adults average one bout of acute diarrhea every year, while children average two. It’s second only to respiratory infections in occurrence, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
Why do I have diarrhea?
The most common causes of diarrhea include bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections; functional bowel disorders; intestinal diseases; food intolerances and sensitivities; and reactions to medicines.
Specifically, some of the most common causes include inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, bacterial infections caused by E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella, and viral infections caused by the rotavirus or norovirus, which cause symptoms similar to bacterial diarrhea but can’t be treated with antibiotics.
Diarrhea lasting more than a couple of days could be a sign of a more serious problem. Chronic diarrhea — diarrhea that lasts at least 4 weeks — may be a symptom of a chronic disease. Chronic diarrhea symptoms may be continual or they may come and go.
The worst symptom of diarrhea is dehydration. Loss of electrolytes through dehydration effect the amount of water in your body, can cause muscle fatigue, and impact other important functions.
“Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems,” according to the NIDDKD. “Dehydration must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems, such as organ damage, shock, or coma — a sleeplike state in which a person is not conscious.”
Signs of dehydration in adults include thirst, less frequent urination, dark-colored urine, dry skin, fatigue, dizziness, and light-headedness.
In infants and young children, signs of dehydration include a dry mouth and tongue, no tears when crying, dry diapers for three hours or more, sunken eyes and cheeks, high fever, and listlessness or irritability.
Stomach pain and diarrhea
Adults with diarrhea should see a doctor about dehydration, diarrhea for more than two days, severe pain in the abdomen or rectum, a fever of 102 degrees or higher, stools containing blood or pus, and stools that are black and tarry.
Children should see a doctor if they have dehydration, diarrhea for more than 24 hours, a fever of 102 degrees or higher, stools containing blood or pus or stools that are black and tarry.
The cause of diarrhea can be determined through a physical exam, a check of the medicine you’re taking, or testing your stool or blood to look for bacteria, parasites, or other signs of disease. You might be asked to stop eating certain foods to see whether that makes the diarrhea stop.
How to stop diarrhea
You might be able to prevent one or two types of diarrhea, rotavirus diarrhea and traveler’s diarrhea. Vaccines can prevent rotavirus. They are given to babies in two or three doses.
You may prevent traveler’s diarrhea by using only bottled or purified water for drinking, boiling or using iodine tablets with tap water, making sure the food you eat is fully cooked and served hot, and avoiding unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables.
March 25, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN