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Diarrhea

Alternative names: Loose bowel movements, Watery stools

What is diarrhea?
What are the signs of diarrhea?
What causes diarrhea?
How does my doctor tell if I have diarrhea?
How is diarrhea treated?

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea means loose, watery stools that happen more than three times in one day. This common condition usually lasts only a day or two, and goes away on its own. Long-term diarrhea can be a sign of other problems. In children and the elderly, diarrhea must be treated promptly.

What are the signs of diarrhea?

Diarrhea often comes with abdominal pain, nausea, and a pressing need to use the toilet. Although in most cases diarrhea is harmless, it sometimes can become dangerous. See your doctor if:

  • You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Your diarrhea lasts longer than three days
  • You feel severe pain in your rectum or abdomen
  • You see blood in your stool, or your stools are black and tarry
  • You are dehydrated

Diarrhea can be dangerous in children if they become dehydrated, especially in infants. Call your child's doctor for advice if your child has diarrhea.

What causes diarrhea?

Short-term diarrhea (lasting less than four weeks) is usually caused by a bacterial, parasitic, or viral infection, such as the stomach flu. Other things that may cause short-term diarrhea include:

  • A food intolerance, such as being unable to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk
  • A reaction to certain medicines, especially antibiotics, antacids, and blood pressure medications
  • Visiting a foreign country, especially a place where the food or drinking water may be contaminated

Diarrhea is considered chronic (long-term) when you have had it longer than four weeks. Chronic diarrhea can be caused by a variety of different problems that can be investigated by your doctor.

How does my doctor tell if I have diarrhea?

In order to find the cause of your diarrhea, your doctor will want to discuss your medical history and your symptoms, and perform a physical exam. He or she may perform one or more of these tests:

  • Routine blood, urine, and stool tests
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy uses a thin, flexible tube - about two feet long - to examine the lower intestine and the rectum. The tube has a tiny video camera and a light mounted at its tip. The video camera transmits images to a television monitor, which allows your doctor to see inside your body. The procedure takes about three minutes, and causes only slight discomfort.
  • In a colonoscopy, a doctor uses a thin, flexible tube to examine the entire large intestine. The tube has a tiny video camera and a light mounted at its tip. The video camera transmits images to a television monitor, which allows your doctor to see inside your body. This will take about an hour, and you will be given medication to make you relaxed and drowsy.
  • Your doctor may suggest a barium enema X-ray test. Barium is a white substance that allows problem areas of the colon to show up on an X-ray. You will be given a barium enema before taking the X-ray.

How is diarrhea treated?

In most cases, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration is the only treatment needed for short-term diarrhea. It may help to eat foods like rice, dry toast, and bananas.

If your diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection or a parasite, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. Unless your doctor says otherwise, don't take an over-the-counter medication for diarrhea. Certain infections can be made worse by these drugs. Never give anti-diarrhea medication to an infant or child without first checking with your child's doctor.

Always see a doctor if your symptoms of diarrhea last longer than three days. Doctors treat long-term cases of diarrhea through medicines and dietary changes, such as eating high-fiber foods.

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