Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis
Diarrhea can have causes that aren’t due to underlying disease. Examples include a liquid diet, food intolerance, stress, anxiety, or use of laxatives.
What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is the evacuation of loose stools in amounts greater than normal (more than 300 grams in 24 hours). Often, it is caused by a virus or bacteria and can be acute or chronic (lasting more than 2-3 weeks). Most people have diarrhea at some point in their life.
In total, seven children die of diarrhea every minute, mainly due to the low quality of the water they drink, and malnutrition.
What is the cause of diarrhea?
The main causes of diarrhea are bacterial and viral infections (1).
Diarrhea occurs when microorganisms irritate the mucosa of the small or large intestines, causing an abnormal amount of water in the stool. The irritated intestine undergoes great activity, contracting excessively and irregularly (colic). This can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, and/or stomach pains. In some cases, bowel movements include traces of blood and mucus.
Diarrhea can also be caused by bacteria or viruses transmitted from one person to another. For this reason, it is important to wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom.
It is generally caused by the consumption of water contaminated with bacteria, by insufficiently cooked meats and eggs, or by inadequate hygiene in handling food. It is not possible to judge the quality of food or detect its contamination by smell or appearance.
Certain bacteria (generally staphylococci) irritate the digestive tract producing toxins. These toxins affect the mucosa long before the bacterial infection (a few hours after consumption). For this reason, people with inflammation or wounds on the hands should not prepare food for others.
[Also Read: Constipation and its Causes]
When taking antibiotics, many people experience diarrhea that may last after treatment has ended. Diarrhea occurs because the antibiotic alters the bacterial environment of the intestine. It is not an allergic reaction. It rarely requires medical treatment.
Chronic diarrhea can be a symptom of numerous disorders:
- Irritable colon syndrome
- Acute, recurrent, or chronic intestinal infections
- Chronic intestinal inflammation (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease)
- Chronic pancreatitis that produces fatty stools
- Lactose intolerance
- Inadequate diet (excessive consumption of alcohol, coffee or sweets)
- Metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and thyrotoxicosis
- Gluten intolerance (wheat protein)
What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
- Frequent and fluid stools
- Lack of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting
- Stomach aches
If diarrhea lasts more than 3 weeks, it is considered chronic.
What are the warning signs?
- Blood in the stools
- Pus in the stools (yellow mucus)
- Inability to drink fluids due to vomiting
- Dehydration (symptoms include the excretion of small amounts of dark urine, drowsiness, dry mucosa, thirst)
- Pronounced drowsiness due to dehydration or intoxication
Acute diarrhea in children: should go to the hospital.
Acute diarrhea in the elderly that can destabilize cardiovascular function due to dehydration.
What steps can be taken at home?
In the case of acute diarrhea, it is advisable to drink more fluids (3-4 liters per day), preferably containing sugar and salts. You can take one of the rehydration solutions that exist in the market (Sueroral).
Sufficient intake is reached when the urine is light yellow.
Absolute diet for 24-36 hours in which only the oral rehydration solution will be taken, about 3 liters every 24 hours.
Lemon tea for its astringent character, is recommended during the acute process.
When the number of bowel movements decreases, you will start with an astringent diet (York ham, grated apple, cooked fish with cooked potato or cooked rice and carrot). When diarrhea has completely subsided, it is recommended to intake yogurt to restore the normal bacterial flora of the colon and start with normal eating.
Maintain adequate hygiene habits.
If you have had an acute attack of diarrhea, avoid foods containing milk for a couple of days.
[Also Read: Natural Remedies for Constipation]
When should I see a doctor?
- When any of the warning signs described appear.
- When diarrhea has occurred during or after a trip abroad.
- When diarrhea lasts more than 1 week.
How is diarrhea treated?
Diarrhea usually goes away on its own within a week. For this reason, treatment with antibiotics is not frequent. It can cause side effects, such as chronic diarrhea.
- Anti-diarrheal agents should not be used unless the number of stools is excessive, and always under optional control.
- Freeze-dried lactic acid bacteria have not been shown to prevent traveler’s diarrhea.
- During visits abroad, boil all drinking water or drink only water from sealed bottles. Also, eat only boiled or peeled vegetables and avoid ice cream.
- If you are not sure how much salt, sugar or water you should consume, use a solution of sugar and salt powder sold at the pharmacy, and dissolve it in water.