Acute diarrhea is an unpleasant digestive disorder that virtually everyone experiences at one time or another. The loose-stool consistency usually lasts a few days at most. It often means more frequent trips to the bathroom and may mean your stool is greater in volume. The most common causes of loose, watery stools and abdominal cramps are infections from viruses, bacteria or parasites. Other causes include medications, particularly antibiotics and artificial sweeteners.
Chronic diarrhea lasts much longer than acute diarrhea. It can be a sign of a serious disorder, or may be due to a less serious condition such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Loose-stool may cause your bowel to lose significant amounts of water and salts. Also, chronic or recurrent loose-stool may signal a more serious underlying medical problem, such as chronic infection, inflammatory bowel disease or poor absorption of nutrients (malabsorption).
Most cases clear on their own without treatment. But if loose-stool persists or you become dehydrated, see your doctor.
Diarrhea Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Frequent loose, watery stools
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
Nausea and vomiting may precede loose-stool that’s caused by an infection. Bacterial or parasitic infections sometimes cause bloody stools. Fever may accompany these infections as well. Persistent abdominal pain is a symptom of potentially even more serious causes of loose-stool.
Normally, the food you eat remains in liquid form during most of the digestive process. When food passes through your colon, most of the fluids are absorbed and what remains is a semisolid stool. In loose-stool, food and fluids you’ve ingested and secreted pass too quickly or in too large an amount — or both — through your colon. The fluids aren’t sufficiently absorbed and the result is a watery bowel movement. Also, the lining of your colon may be inflamed or diseased, making it less able to absorb fluids.
The most common causes include:
- Viruses. – Rotavirus and adenovirus are common examples in young children. Direct contact easily spreads it.
- Bacteria and parasites – Parasites such as Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium can cause loose-stool. Certain bacteria can make a toxin that triggers intestinal cells to secrete rather than to absorb salt and water. Common bacterial causes of include campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli. These infections overwhelm the capacity of your lower small bowel or your colon, or both, to absorb fluid. The result is loose-stool. Contaminated food or water can transmit bacteria and parasites to your body. Lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products, also is a common cause.
Loose-stool can be a side effect of many medications, particularly antibiotics. Antibiotics can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in your intestines.
In addition, the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and mannitol found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products can be the culprit. Many otherwise healthy people may have some difficulty with these sweeteners.
You can help prevent the spread of this viral digestive disorder, wash your hands and encouraging your children to wash their hands. Because it spreads easily, it’s a good idea to keep your child home from school or child care if he or she has it.
Guard against contaminated food:
- Use dairy products that have been pasteurized. Pasteurization involves heating dairy products for a period of time to kill bacteria.
- Serve food right away or refrigerate it after it has been cooked or reheated. Leaving food out at room temperature encourages growth of bacteria.
Commonly affects people who travel to developing countries, sometimes due to inadequate sanitation and contaminated food and water. To reduce your risk:
- Eat hot, well-cooked foods.
- Drink bottled water, soda, beer or wine served in its original container. Beverages from boiled water, such as coffee and tea, also are usually safe. Remember that alcohol and caffeine can aggravate diarrhea and dehydration.
- Use bottled water even for brushing your teeth. Keep your mouth closed while you shower.
- Avoid salads, buffet foods, raw or under cooked meats, raw vegetables, grapes, berries, dairy foods, tap water and ice cubes.
Most cases clear on their own in 2 or 3 days without treatment. If you’ve sought medical attention, your doctor likely will advise you to be sure to drink enough replacement fluids and an electrolyte mixture because of the fluids and body chemicals lost during diarrhea. Your body needs adequate levels of minerals, sodium, magnesium, calcium and especially potassium, in order to maintain the electric currents that keep your heart beating. Disruption of your body’s levels of fluids and minerals creates an electrolyte imbalance. Unless restored, this imbalance can be serious.
If your doctor determines that an antibiotic medication caused your condition, you’ll need to stop taking that medication.
If a parasitic infection is the cause, prescription antibiotics may ease your symptoms. Antibiotics sometimes, but not always, help ease symptoms. However, antibiotics won’t help viral diarrhea, which is the most common kind.
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