Diarrhea facts

  • Diarrhea is an increase in the frequency of bowel movements, an increase in the looseness of stool or both.
  • Diarrhea is caused by increased secretion of fluid into the intestine, reduced absorption of fluid from the intestine or rapid passage of stool through the intestine.
  • Diarrhea can be defined absolutely or relatively. Absolute diarrhea is defined as more than five bowel movements a day or liquid stools. Relative diarrhea is defined as an increase in the number of bowel movements per day or an increase in the looseness of stools compared with an individual's usual bowel habit.
  • Diarrhea may be either acute or chronic, and each has different causes and treatments.
  • Complications of diarrhea include dehydration, electrolytes (mineral) abnormalities, and irritation of the anus.
  • Dehydration can be treated with oral rehydration solutions and, if necessary, with intravenous fluids.
  • Tests that are useful in the evaluation of acute diarrhea include examination of stool for white blood cells and parasites, cultures of stool for bacteria, testing of stool for the toxin of C. difficile and blood tests for electrolyte abnormalities.
  • Tests that are useful in the evaluation of chronic diarrhea include examination of stool for parasites, upper gastrointestinal X-rays (UGI series), barium enema, esophago-gastro-duodenoscopy (EGD) with biopsies, colonoscopy with biopsies, hydrogen breath testing, and measurement of fat in the stool.
  • Diarrhea may be treated with absorbents, anti-motility medications, and bismuth compounds.
  • Antibiotics should not be used in treating diarrhea unless there is a culture-proven bacterial infection that requires antibiotics, severe diarrhea that is likely to be infectious in origin, or when an individual has serious underlying diseases.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/14/2013

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Diarrhea Causes

Common Causes of Chronic Diarrhea

Examples of some of the common causes of chronic diarrhea include:

  • infectious disease such as Giardia lamblia;
  • following acute viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections;
  • severe constipation;
  • laxative abuse; and
  • endocrine diseases such as hyperthyroidismor Addison's disease.

Diarrhea also can be a symptom of a disease or condition. For example:

  • fat malabsorption can cause diarrhea as a symptom of celiac disease,
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),
  • bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine(a condition in which normal colonic bacteria spread from the colon into the small intestine), and
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn's diseaseand ulcerative colitis.


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