Medical Treatment Options For Diarrhea (Watery or Loose Stools)
“It may not be a pleasant subject to discuss , but diarrhea is a common problem that is sure to affect everyone at one time or another. Numerous health conditions can cause diarrhea. Most of the time, diarrhea is caused by a dietary indiscretion or a viral illness and is short-lived, but for some diarrhea can be a symptom of a more serious condition. If your diarrhea last longer than a few days, you should make an appointment to come in and see me”.
What is diarrhea?
Like constipation, diarrhea may mean different things to different people. The frequency and consistency of bowel movements is highly individual. Diarrhea can be described as stools that are more frequent and looser/more watery in consistency.
What symptoms might occur along with diarrhea?
Along with frequent and loose/watery stools, you might also have:
- abdominal pain/cramping
- low-grade fever (if your diarrhea is caused by a virus)
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea is the result of increased bowel transit time- in other words, food and fluids pass too quickly through your bowel. When transit time is normal, your body pulls water from your bowels, leaving a semi-solid stool to be passed. When stool passes through so quickly that little water is absorbed, diarrhea is the result.
There are numerous conditions that can cause diarrhea, including:
- viral illness– we’ve all experienced viruses that cause diarrhea along with nausea and vomiting; these viruses generally cause illness for 1 to 3 days
- bacterial illnesses- bacteria in water or food may cause diarrhea; you may also have fever, abdominal pain and blood in your stool
- medication– antibiotics often cause diarrhea, as do many other medications (if you think your medication is causing diarrhea, you should schedule a visit)
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)- IBS is a functional bowel disorder (meaning that nothing is wrong with the bowel structurally); IBS may cause diarrhea alone, constipation alone, or alternating constipation and diarrhea. Abdominal bloating is also a feature of this common disorder
- lactose intolerance– people who lack the enzyme required to break down the sugar in milk may suffer from bloating, cramping and diarrhea after consuming dairy products
- surgery- if you have had abdominal surgery, you may experience diarrhea transiently or permanently, depending on the procedure that was performed
- celiac disease (gluten intolerance)– in this disorder, people are unable to digest gluten, which is found in many foods
- Crohn’s disease/ilcerative colitis– these are inflammatory bowel disorders that can cause diarrhea, blood in the stool, abdominal pain and other symptoms
- parasites– parasitic infections (often picked up while traveling) may cause diarrhea
These are just a few of the causes of diarrhea- there are many more.
How do I know if my diarrhea is serious?
It can be difficult to know when your diarrhea is bad enough that you should make an appointment to see me. Generally speaking, you should make an appointment if:
- you have a high fever for more than a day
- you are passing blood in your stool (may be bright red or tarry black stools)
- you are dehydrated (you feel weak, dizzy, pass very little urine or your urine is dark, your pulse is fast or your mouth is very dry)
- you have severe stomach/abdominal pain
- you have had frequent diarrhea for more than 48 hours
- you have an underlying health condition such as diabetes, heart disease or other serious illness
What can I expect when I come in?
When you come to see us with diarrhea, We will ask about your symptoms. We will need to know when your symptoms started, whether you have traveled, how frequently you are passing loose or watery stools and what other symptoms you are experiencing (i.e., vomiting, fever, abdominal pain). We will want to know about your past medical history if you are a new patient. We will also need to know if you have any allergies.
We will take your vital signs. Abnormal vital signs, such as low blood pressure and a rapid pulse, may tell us that you are dehydrated. We will need to examine you (you may need to change into a gown for the examination). We will listen you your abdomen and press gently so that we can determine if any area of your abdomen is tender when we press on it. We may also listen to your heart and lungs. We will look for signs of dehydration (dry mouth, sunken eyes).
Depending on our findings and your history, we may order diagnostic tests such as blood work, stool samples, and abdominal x-ray or other tests. We will tell you what we are ordering and why we are ordering a particular test. We will also discuss the results of any test with you, so that we can decide how best to treat you. Treatment will depend on what the problem is.
If you are experiencing diarrhea that has lasted more than a couple of days, especially if your diarrhea is associated with any of the serious signs and symptoms listed above, you should make an appointment to come in and see us as soon as possible. Although you may just have a viral illness, there are many conditions that have diarrhea as a feature.