August 2016

What I Need to Know About Diarrhea

Diarrhea is frequent, loose and watery bowel movements. Stool contains what is left after your digestive system absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink. If your body does not absorb the fluids, or if your digestive system produces extra fluids, stools will be loose and watery. Loose stools contain more water, salts and minerals and weigh more than solid stools. Diarrhea that last a short time is called acute diarrhea.  Acute diarrhea is a common problem and usually lasts only 1-2 days.  Diarrhea that lasts for at least 4 weeks is called chronic diarrhea.  In addition to loose stools, other possible symptoms include cramps, an urgent need to use the bathroom and loss of bowel control.

Causes of Diarrhea include:  Bacteria from contaminated food or water; viruses that cause illnesses, such as the flu; parasites, which are tiny organisms found in contaminated food or water; medicine such as antibiotics; problems digesting certain foods; diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine or colon, such as Crohn’s disease and problems with how the colon functions, caused by disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. 

In order to diagnosis the cause of your diarrhea, your gastroenterologist will perform a physical exam, ask you about the medicines you are taking, test your stool or blood for bacteria, parasites or other signs of disease or infection. Your doctor may ask you to stop eating certain foods to see whether your diarrhea goes away.  If you have chronic diarrhea, your doctor may perform other tests to look for signs of disease.

Diarrhea is treated by replacing lost fluids, salts and minerals to prevent dehydration.  Taking medicine to stop diarrhea can be helpful in some cases. Medicines you can buy over the counter without a prescription include Imodium, Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate. Stop taking these medicines if symptoms get worse or if the diarrhea lasts more than 2 days.  If you have bloody diarrhea, you should not use over-the –counter medicines.  These medicines may make the diarrhea last longer. Your Gastroenterologist will usually prescribe antibiotics instead.

 If you have diarrhea, you should eat soft, bland foods such as bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, baked chicken without the skin or fat.  In order to prevent dehydration, it is important to drink plenty of water, fruit juices, sports drinks, soda without caffeine and salty broths. Sometimes eating yogurt with active live bacterial cultures may help you feel better faster.

Traveler’s diarrhea is preventable.  It is caused by eating food or drinking water that contains harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites. You can prevent traveler’s diarrhea by being careful.  Do not drink tap water or use it to brush your teeth. Do not eat or drink unpasteurized milk or milk products. Do not eat raw fruits or vegetables, unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself. Do not eat raw or rare meat or fish. Do not eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you; and lastly do not eat food sold by street vendors.  In some cases taking antibiotics before traveling can prevent traveler’s diarrhea. 

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