Diarrhea is characterized by the abnormally frequent passage of watery or unformed bowel movements. It may be accompanied by abdominal pain and cramps. Depending upon the cause, fever may also occur.
Everyone is likely to have bouts of diarrhea from time to time, but usually they disappear without treatment and have no lasting adverse effects. In addition to various diseases, diarrhea may be caused by emotional upsets, excessive alcohol consumption, a number of medications, or overconsumption of certain foods, such as bran or beans.
Causes of diarrhea
AIDS patients are particularly susceptible to diarrhea from two different causes. As AIDS destroys its victim's immune system, the person becomes increasingly vulnerable to infections, many of which attack the digestive tract and produce diarrhea. In addition, the disease disrupts the body's ability to absorb nutrients, also causing diarrhea.
Many people experience allergic reactions after eating certain foods, leading to diarrhea and other symptoms such as vomiting and the appearance of hives. Milk, eggs, shellfish, nuts, and certain fruits are among the common culprits.
This congenital disorder is caused by an intolerance for gluten, a protein that is present in most grains. The disease prevents the intestine from absorbing nutrients and is usually noticed when cereal is added to a baby's diet in the first year of life.
Otherwise healthy children may suffer from recurrent or even chronic diarrhea that is not caused by any specific disease. These youngsters usually develop normally and the diarrhea eventually disappears, although it may take several years.
Diarrhea is the hallmark of many diseases affecting the colon. For example, any change in bowel habits can be a warning sign of cancer of the large intestine, which includes the colon and the rectum. Diarrhea, constipation, narrow stools, or bloody or black, tarry stools may indicate the presence of this disease. Diarrhea, often alternating with constipation, may be caused by diverticulitis, the inflammation of outpouches (diverticula) along the colon wall. Irritable bowel syndrome also produces diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and gas. It usually begins in adolescence or young adulthood, and is exacerbated by stress. Episodes of bloody diarrhea characterize ulcerative colitis, a chronic, inflammatory disease of the colon.
This condition, which is also called regional ileitis or regional enteritis, is an inflammatory disease primarily of the ileum, the lower part of the small intestine, although it may also affect the large intestine. In addition to diarrhea, there may be abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite and weight, and blood in the stool.
Food poisoning and other intestinal infections
A number of different food-borne infections can cause diarrhea, with salmonella one of the most common. The organism that causes salmonella is especially prevalent in raw eggs, poultry, and meat. Severe diarrhea, along with abdominal cramps, weakness, and sometimes fever and chills characterize salmonella. Most people recover in a few days, but salmonella poisoning can be life threatening in the very young, the aged, or people debilitated by other diseases. Amebiasis and giardiasis are other relatively common intestinal infections caused by consuming contaminated food or water.
Malabsorption syndromes occur when the intestinal tract is unable to absorb certain nutrients into the bloodstream. They have a variety of possible causes, including a deficiency of digestive enzymes; diseases of the pancreas, gallbladder, or liver that may result in inadequate digestion; and diseases of the intestinal wall such as sprue. Regardless of the cause, diarrhea is common in malabsorption syndromes.
Also called turista, this disorder is most common among people who travel to undeveloped countries with different standards of hygiene and sanitation than are common in the United States. The cause is unknown, but is generally thought to be bacteria in water or food. The diarrhea is usually mild and lasts only a few days. It can be prevented by taking bismuth (Pepto-Bismol) and by drinking only bottled water and eating well-cooked foods.
Advice about diarrhea
- In general, diarrhea that produces no other symptoms and resolves itself in a few days does not require medical attention. The exception is diarrhea in a newborn, which always requires a physician's care to prevent dehydration.
- Protect against food poisoning by making sure that foods are properly refrigerated and well cooked.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs. Poultry should be rinsed and then cooked until it is well done.
- Consult a doctor before taking antidiarrhea medicines such as Imodium or Lomotil, which slow intestinal action. These drugs should not be used to treat diarrhea caused by salmonella, shigella, E.coli, or other bacteria because they can actually prolong the infection by giving the organisms more time to multiply before being discharged from the body.