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What is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a symptom. It is characterized by frequent, loose, watery stools and may be accompanied by stomach cramps, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. Diarrhea can be acute, starting suddenly and lasting a day or two, or chronic, a long-term problem that can last for several weeks to months. Chronic diarrhea affects about 5% of the population. It can impact quality of life and your overall health status. It can be incapacitating and even dangerous.

Acute diarrhea

Acute diarrhea is most often caused by a viral infection, such as the stomach flu. These infections usually go away on their own in a few days.

Other causes include:

  • Bacterial infections, such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Shigella, can cause diarrhea.
  • Parasitic infections, such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium, can cause diarrhea.
  • Food intolerance such as lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance can cause diarrhea.
  • Diarrhea is a common side effect of some antibiotics and other medications.
  • Certain food most commonly lactose containing foods and coffee.

Chronic diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea is defined as three or more loose/watery stools within 24 hours and lasts for at least four weeks. It can be caused by a number of things, including:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS is a disorder that affects the large intestine. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
  • Chronic diarrhea can be caused by chronic infections from bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
  • Food intolerance such as lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance can cause chronic diarrhea.
  • Currently up to 700 drugs are associated with diarrhea, such as antibiotics and laxatives. can cause chronic diarrhea.
  • Diarrhea can be a symptom of malabsorption disorders such as celiac disease.
  • Endocrine disorders like diabetes can cause chronic diarrhea.
  • Food allergies and food sensitivities can cause chronic diarrhea.

There is no single definitive test to identify the cause of your chronic diarrhea. Gastroenterology Associate of Brooklyn clinician will review your medical history, ask you about your symptoms and lifestyle, and perform a physical exam. Signs of unintended weight loss may suggest severe disease. They will also order tests, such as stool studies, blood tests and urine tests to help identify what is causing your chronic diarrhea. If tests fail to reveal a cause, you may need x-rays, an upper endoscopy, colonoscopy and/or capsule endoscopy. Sometimes a specific cause cannot be identified. In this case, the diagnosis is likely to be irritable bowel disorder.

Treatment for chronic diarrhea will vary depending on the underlying cause. In some cases, no specific treatment is necessary, and the diarrhea will resolve on its own. Sometimes the goal is to control the diarrhea even before identifying the cause to prevent dehydration and malnutrition. A trial of over the counter and prescriptions medications may be recommended.  Sometimes just stopping a medication or changing the diet may be sufficient.

However, tests reveal that your chronic diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection, your Gastroenterology Associates of Brooklyn clinician may prescribe antibiotics. If it is due to a parasitic infection, they may recommend anti-parasitic medication. If chronic diarrhea is a symptom of another condition, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, treating the underlying condition is the best way to manage chronic diarrhea.

If you are experiencing severe or bloody diarrhea, or if you have other symptoms such as fever, weight loss, dehydration, or severe abdominal pain, you should see your Gastroenterology Associates of Brooklyn doctor as soon as possible. These may be signs of a more serious condition that requires treatment.