Diarrhea simply describes the passage of stools that are loose and watery, typically in a more frequent manner that is different from your normal frequency. It may also be accompanied by stomach cramps, bloating, nausea and an urgent need to use the loo. Many people will have bouts of diarrhea from time to time, typically lasting between less than a day to about three days. While more often than not, it’s not usually serious, at times it can become dangerous or even signal a serious problem.
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Based on the duration of symptoms, diarrhea can be classified into acute and chronic diarrhea.
- Acute diarrhea usually lasts for a few days and is typically caused by an infection of some sort – bacterial, viral, or parasitic.
- Chronic diarrhea persists for periods longer than the acute type and is typically longer than three weeks. This type of diarrhea is usually indicative of a serious disorder, like AIDS, diabetes, or even ulcerative colitis.
What Causes Diarrhea?
The most-common cause of diarrhea is a virus that infects the digestive system. In this case, the infection usually lasts for about two days and then it usually resolves itself without much intervention.
Other causes of diarrhea include:
- Food poisoning that is commonly caused by eating food infected with diarrhea-causing bacteria
- Eating foods that upset the digestive system
- Food allergies
- Infection of other organisms, e.g., viruses and parasites
- Some medications, e.g., antacids, blood pressure drugs, and some cancer drugs
- Diseases of the digestive system, e.g., Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome
- Malabsorption syndromes, where the body cannot absorb certain nutrients from the diet adequately
- Some cancers
- Laxative use and abuse
- Pancreatic disease
- Diarrhea may also follow constipation, especially for people who have irritable bowel syndrome.
Symptoms of Diarrhea
The symptoms of diarrhea can be classified based on its severity. For non-severe (uncomplicated) diarrhea, the symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Feeling of abdominal bloating
- Passage of thin or loose stools
- Passage of very watery stool
- An uncontrollable urgency to pass stool
- Nausea and vomiting
For severe/complicated diarrhea, in addition to the symptoms of non-severe diarrhea, you could also experience the following:
- Passage of blood, mucus, or undigested food in the stool
- Weight loss
Severe diarrhea can also lead to death in extreme cases.
Home Treatment of Diarrhea
Most cases of diarrhea resolve on their own after a few hours or days without treatment, especially if it’s viral in nature or if your body is just trying to expel something you ate that doesn’t quite agree with you.
But because diarrhea can lead to dehydration, it is important to drink plenty of fluids during the course of the illness – drink small, frequent sips of water, or an oral rehydration solution (this can be bought over the counter).
You can also use over-the-counter medications, such as Imodium or Pepto-Bismol. Just make sure to follow the instructions on the package.
When You Should See Your Doctor
If you experience any of the following, please call your doctor or have someone take you to the hospital as a matter of urgency:
- If your diarrhea persists for more than two days without any sign of improvement
- If you experience excessive thirst, dry mouth or skin, severe weakness, passage of little or no urine or dark-coloured urine or dizziness, these could mean you are getting dehydrated.
- If you have severe abdominal or rectal pain
- If there’s blood in your stools or you pass black stools
- If you have a high fever
If the person with diarrhea is a child, seek immediate medical attention if:
- The child’s diarrhea doesn’t improve after eight to 24 hours
- He/she hasn’t had a wet diaper in three or more hours (if it’s a baby)
- The child has a high fever
- The child passes bloody or black stools
- The child has a dry mouth or cries without any tears
- The child is unusually drowsy, unresponsive, or irritable
- The child has sunken eyes, cheeks, or abdomen
- The child’s skin looks dry and doesn’t flatten if pinched lightly and released
As with many other illnesses, a key factor in avoiding diarrhea is good hygiene practices. The following tips can help you prevent illnesses that cause diarrhea:
- Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom and before and after eating.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitisers frequently, especially when there’s no water at hand.
- Teach your children not to put objects in their mouth.
- Be careful and very vigilant with what and where you eat.
- Wash your fruits, vegetables, meats, and fresh foods well before eating or cooking them.
- Avoid eating undercooked foods.
If you already have diarrhea, you can prevent its spread to other members of your household by:
- Washing your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet and before eating or preparing food
- Clean the toilet bowl, handle, and seat with disinfectant after each bout of diarrhea
- Avoid sharing towels, flannels, and cutlery or utensils with other household members
Till I come your way again, stay healthy, folks!