Diarrhea is described as loose watery stools sometimes with increase in frequency requiring frequent trips to the toilet. In most cases diarrhea symptoms usually last for a few days, but if the symptoms occur for more than the 30 days it can be a sign of a serious disorder.
Diarrhea occurs when the food and fluids you ingest pass too quickly through your colon. Diarrhea can be classified into acute or chronic and its symptoms can be classified as uncomplicated and complicated. Uncomplicated symptoms of diarrhea are abdominal cramping/bloating, thin loose watery stools, and the sense of urgency to have a bowel movements. Symptoms of complicated diarrhea include blood or undigested food in the stool, weight loss and fever. If you have symptoms of complicated diarrhea you need to notify your primary care provider for further evaluation.
Acute diarrhea usually lasts for 14 days or less.
Common causes of acute diarrhea include:
- Viral infections such as cytomegalovirus, norovirus, rotavirus, adenoviruses
- Bacteria and parasites. Contaminated food or water can transmit bacteria and parasites to your body. Common bacterial infections include Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli and Clostridium Difficile.
- Medications. Many medications can cause diarrhea, but the most common are antibiotics. Antibiotics can destroy both good and bad bacteria , which can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in our intestines that can lead to a bacterial infection called Clostridium Difficile.
- Overuse of laxatives
If you are experiencing a mild case of diarrhea, you can usually let it run its course and treat it with over the counter medications such as Pepto Bismol, Imodium A-D and Kaopectate.
Chronic diarrhea lasts for more than 30 days.
Common causes of chronic diarrhea include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Microscopic colitis (diagnosis is done by colon biopsies because the colon appears normal on colonoscopy)
- Malabsorption syndromes such as Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, chronic pancreatitis, and small bowel bacterial overgrowth
- Surgery such as cholecystectomy (removal of gallbladder). Diarrhea following cholecystectomy has been reported in 5-12% of cases and is due to increased bile acids in the colon leading to diarrhea.
Many of the diagnoses for chronic diarrhea require endoscopic evaluation and biopsy of the colon.
Diarrhea can quickly deplete the body's supply of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) that tissues need to function. If you are experiencing symptoms of diarrhea you should prevent dehydration by drinking liquids frequently such as water, fruit juices, and sports drinks because they contain electrolytes. You should notify your health care provider if you are experiencing diarrhea for several weeks, bloody diarrhea, and/or fever.