DEFINITION--The passage of many loose, watery or unformed bowel movements. This
is a symptom, not a disease.
BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Colon; small intestine.
SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; simple diarrhea is common among all age
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
- Cramping abdominal pain.
- Loose, watery or unformed bowel movements.
- Lack of bowel control (sometimes).
- Fever (sometimes).
CAUSES--There are many causes including infections (viral, parasitic or
RISK INCREASES WITH
- Emotional upsets or acute stress.
- Food poisoning or food allergy.
- Infections (viral, parasitic or bacterial) or other recent illness.
- Regional enteritis.
- Malabsorption syndromes.
- Disease or tumor of the pancreas (malignant or benign).
- Foods, such as prunes or beans.
- Use of drugs, such as laxatives, antacids, antibiotics, quinine or anticancer drugs.
- Radiation treatments for cancer.
- Excess alcohol consumption.
- Crowded or unsanitary living conditions.
- Immunosuppression due to illness or drugs.
- Travel to foreign country.
- Ingestion of water from streams, springs or untested wells.
- Lactose or sorbitol intolerance.
HOW TO PREVENT
- If diarrhea is recurrent and a cause can be identified, treatment or avoidance of the
cause should prevent recurrence.
- Everyone is likely to have bouts of diarrhea occasionally from insignificant causes that
disappear and leave no lasting effects. Most cases of acute diarrhea last a short time and
a search for the cause may not be necessary.
- Avoid undercooked or raw seafood, buffet or picnic foods left out several hours and food
served by street vendors.
- Wash hands frequently, especially after using the toilet.
What To Expect
- Your own observation of symptoms.
- Medical history and exam by a doctor.
- Laboratory stool studies (for prolonged diarrhea).
APPROPRIATE HEALTH CARE
- Self-care. Diarrhea is a symptom. If possible, the underlying disorder should be
- Doctor's treatment (if symptoms persist longer than 2 to 3 days).
POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS--Dehydration if diarrhea is prolonged, especially in
PROBABLE OUTCOME--Spontaneous recovery in 24 to 48 hours.
How To Treat
- If you think a prescription drug is causing the diarrhea, consult with the doctor before
- If cramps are present, place hot compresses, a hot-water bottle or an electric heating
pad on the abdomen.
- Maintain fluid intake. Severe diarrhea may require urgent fluid and electrolyte
replacement to correct dehydration.
MEDICATION--For minor discomfort, you may use non-prescription drugs such as
bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol).
ACTIVITY--Decrease activity until diarrhea stops.
- Replace lost fluids and electrolytes with a commercial rehydration product (e.g.,
Gatorade). There are special products for infants (Pedialyte, Ricelyte, etc.). Follow
- After 12 hours with no diarrhea, try a diet of clear soup, salted crackers, dry toast or
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk and dairy products, spicy, fried and junk foods.
- Resume a normal diet 2 or 3 days after the diarrhea stops. Avoid alcohol and highly
seasoned foods for several more days.
Call Your Doctor If
- Diarrhea lasts more than 48 hours, especially in a child.
- Mucus, blood or worms appear in the stool.
- Fever rises to 101F (38.3C) or higher.
- Severe pain develops in the abdomen or rectum.
- Dehydration develops. Signs include: dry mouth; wrinkled skin; excess thirst; little or