Diarrhea is a familiar phenomenon defined as unusually frequent, soft, or liquid bowel movements. It is the opposite of constipation. The word diarrhea originates from the Greek term, diarrhoia, meaning “a flowing through.” It often means frequent trips to the toilet. Normally, the food you eat remains in liquid form during most of the digestive process. When food passes through your colon, most of the fluids are absorbed, leaving a semisolid stool. In diarrhea, the food and fluids that are ingested and secreted pass in large amounts too quickly through the colon. The fluids are insufficiently absorbed, resulting in a watery bowel movement. Also, the lining of the colon may be inflamed or diseased, making it less able to absorb fluids.
Types of Diarrhea
Everyone experiences acute diarrhea at one time or another, with the loose-stool consistency lasting just a few days. In adults, it is usually mild and resolves without complication-the episode being more of an inconvenience than an illness. The only unfortunate effect is that water and salts are temporarily lost from the body. However, in infants and children under 3 years old, diarrhea is more serious. Children can become dehydrated fairly quickly.
Acute diarrhea, frequently called the “intestinal-stomach flu” or viral gastroenteritis, is often due to one of many viruses infecting and irritating the bowel, making it weep fluid. These include campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and escherichia coli. Contaminated food or water, public swimming pools, and communal hot tubs are possible sources of these infections. The inflammation may also cause cramps and abdominal pain. It often appears in mini-epidemics in schools, neighborhoods, or families.
Traveler’s diarrhea can be due to particular bacteria typical in certain parts of the world. People living in these areas are usually well adjusted to commonly found bacteria in their environment, but tourists are susceptible to these bacterial infections. Food poisoning diarrhea occurs from eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria and parasites, such as giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium.
Medications-especially antibiotics (which can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in the intestines), laxatives containing magnesium, chemotherapy for cancer treatment, as well as the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and mannitol found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products can all cause diarrhea.
Chronic diarrhea (ongoing or prolonged) is when you pass loose or frequent stools for more than four weeks. This condition is usually due to an underlying major gastrointestinal disease, the most typical of which causes inflammation and mal-absorption of food and nutrients. Examples include lactose intolerance, gluten mal-absorption, and intolerance to foods like beans and fruit. Other mal-absorption inflammatory bowel diseases include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis-two recurring types of diarrhea that are generally bloody and accompanied by abdominal pain. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is yet another kind of stomach upset where a person generally has alternating diarrhea and constipation. “Nervous diarrhea,” a component of IBS, is very common and often appears briefly when the body is under stress. However, some people constantly suffer from nervous stress and have continuous diarrhea because of it.
Treatment of Diarrhea
During diarrhea, disruption of the body’s fluid and mineral level creates an electrolyte imbalance; unless restored, this imbalance can be serious.
- Drink plenty of fluids-any fluid other than those containing caffeine and alcohol. Milk also provides needed nourishment for mild diarrhea. Electrolyte solutions can replenish the fluids, salts, and minerals lost during moderate and severe diarrhea. The body needs adequate levels of sodium and potassium in order to maintain the electric currents that keep the heart beating.
- Foods like rice, dry toast, and bananas are helpful, as are soda crackers, toast, eggs, rice or chicken.
- Avoid dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods for a few days.
- Stay away from over-the-counter diarrhea medications. These drugs can make certain infections worse since they prevent the body from getting rid of what is initially causing the diarrhea.
- If you experience diarrhea when taking antibiotics, try taking lactobacillus acidophilus-a probiotic, or form of healthy bacteria. Active cultures of probiotics replenish the good bacteria that antibiotics kill, making diarrhea less severe and shortening its duration. Probiotics can be found in yogurt with active or live cultures, and in supplements.