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Diarrhea
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Diarrhea

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DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
Diseases & Conditions  

Acute diarrhea is an unpleasant digestive disorder that virtually everyone experiences at one time or another. The loose-stool consistency usually lasts a few days at most. Diarrhea often means more frequent trips to the bathroom and may mean your stool is greater in volume. The most common causes of loose, watery stools and abdominal cramps are infections from viruses, bacteria or parasites. Other causes include medications - particularly antibiotics - and artificial sweeteners.

Chronic diarrhea lasts much longer than acute diarrhea. It can be a sign of a serious disorder, or may be due to a less serious condition such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Diarrhea may cause your bowel to lose significant amounts of water and salts. Also, chronic or recurrent diarrhea may signal a more serious underlying medical problem, such as chronic infection, inflammatory bowel disease or poor absorption of nutrients (malabsorption).

Most cases of diarrhea clear on their own without treatment. But if diarrhea persists or you become dehydrated, see your doctor.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms associated with diarrhea may include:

In addition, other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting may precede diarrhea that's caused by, for example, an infection. Bacterial or parasitic infections sometimes cause bloody stools. Fever may accompany these infections as well. Persistent abdominal pain can be a symptom of potentially even more serious causes of diarrhea.

Causes

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 and what remains is a semisolid stool. In diarrhea, food and fluids you've ingested and secreted pass too quickly or in too large an amount — or both — through your colon. The fluids aren't sufficiently absorbed, and the result is a watery bowel movement. Also, the lining of your colon may be inflamed or diseased, making it less able to absorb fluids.

The most common causes of diarrhea include:

  • Viruses. Rotavirus is the most common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Viral diarrhea is easily spread.

  • Bacteria and parasites. Contaminated food or water can transmit bacteria and parasites to your body. Parasites such as Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium can cause diarrhea. Common bacterial causes of diarrhea include campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli.

Lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products, is a common cause of diarrhea in some people. Diarrhea can also be a side effect of many medications, particularly antibiotics. Antibiotics can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in your intestines.

In addition, the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and mannitol found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products can cause diarrhea. Some otherwise healthy people may have difficulty with these sweeteners.


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