Nearly everyone experiences diarrhea at some point in their lives, and most often it’s an issue that resolves itself in several days or less. Sometimes diarrhea has an unknown cause, such as eating a food that disagrees with you, or it can be a symptom of another gastrointestinal condition, such as the stomach flu. However, it’s good to know about different types of diarrhea and how to treat diarrhea. In some cases, it can be indicative of a more serious gastrointestinal disease that requires more treatment, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Read on to learn more about the different types of diarrhea, diarrhea treatment, and when to consult a gastroenterologist.
What Is Diarrhea?
Bowel movements are a regular part of life, and quite often, they can be irregular. Most patients are familiar with hard, dry stool (constipation) or loose, watery stool (diarrhea). Many times, the cause of diarrhea is unknown, and symptoms usually improve within a few days. Diarrhea is commonly associated with conditions such as gastroenteritis (stomach or intestinal flu) and food poisoning.
With diarrhea, you may experience abdominal pain or cramping and an emergent need to run to the bathroom. Diarrhea can void suddenly. Nausea, vomiting, and bloating are all associated with diarrhea as well.
One possible serious side effect of diarrhea is dehydration. Because the stools are watery, your body loses water and electrolytes quickly. Dehydration can be severe if left untreated, so always drink plenty of water in any case of diarrhea.
Dehydration can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, which means you lose a large amount of magnesium, potassium, and sodium that your body needs. Severe dehydration can also lead to kidney failure when the kidneys do not receive enough water.
Causes of Diarrhea
Because diarrhea is not often severe, the cause is unidentified. The most common cause is viral gastroenteritis (stomach and intestinal flu). Other causes of diarrhea include:
- Bacterial infection
- Poor absorption of food
- Food intolerances, such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance
- Eating foods that disagree with your digestive system
- Infection from organisms or preformed toxins
- Radiation therapy
- Certain medications, such as antibiotics
Antibiotics such as clindamycin, erythromycin, and other antibiotics may cause diarrhea as a side effect. This is because antibiotics upset the balance of certain intestinal bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile (C. difficile). In turn, this can cause inflammation of the colon and colitis, as well as diarrhea. Diarrhea associated with antibiotics can begin during the course of treatment or after the antibiotics are finished.
Different Types of Diarrhea
There are different types of diarrhea to be aware of as well. Diarrhea is typically classified as:
- Acute diarrhea. This is the most common type of diarrhea, and it typically runs a two-day course. Often, it doesn’t require treatment at all.
- Persistent diarrhea. This type of diarrhea can last two to four weeks.
- Chronic diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea lasts for more than two to four weeks and may persist for a long time.
While not a classification, there is also traveler’s diarrhea. Onset usually occurs within 10 days of visiting an area with poor hygiene. In these situations, washing your hands frequently is a must. You should also avoid drinking water in certain areas. Diarrhea treatment may differ for different types of diarrhea.
When to See a Doctor About Your Diarrhea
In most cases, diarrhea will go away on its own within a few days. While you’re experiencing mild diarrhea, it’s a good idea to stay hydrated with water and sports drinks and adhere to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast), all of which are easy on the digestive system. You may also take over-the-counter medications, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol®) or loperamide imodium (IMODIUM®). These are antidiarrheal medications for diarrhea treatment and can help lessen symptoms.
Severe diarrhea can have additional symptoms such as:
- Severe pain
- Unintended weight loss
- Blood in the stool or mucus
If your diarrhea does not go away within several days, and/or you experience these symptoms, it’s a good idea to consult with a gastroenterologist.
Your doctor may use several methods to diagnose diarrhea before you are given diarrhea treatment. They may do a stool test to check for blood in the stool, blood work, or a breath test to check for lactose intolerance. Your physician may also order an endoscopy to examine your digestive tract. During this procedure, you are placed under mild anesthesia, and a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the throat. There is a tiny camera attached to the end of the tube, which can examine your GI tract from the throat to the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine).
Treatment for more severe diarrhea is slightly different. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have very clear guidelines on how to treat diarrhea. Often, the first line of treatment is antibiotics or anti-parasitic medication, depending on what is causing the diarrhea. Antimicrobial therapy is used on a case-by-case basis and often depends on whether you are treating a child or an adult with diarrhea. Your gastroenterologist may also have to treat underlying conditions that are causing your diarrhea.