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Condition Info > D > Diarrhea
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(Runs · Loose Stools)

In this condition factsheet:

Diagnosing Diarrhea

Your doctor will first need to find out what's causing your diarrhea by asking questions about your eating habits and medication you've been taking (including non-prescription medication). Blood and stool samples may be taken to check for infection if deemed necessary. It may take several days to get the results of stool samples, but it is important for your doctor to know what is causing the diarrhea to determine the appropriate treatment.

With chronic diarrhea, a colonoscopy may need to be done to be sure it isn't due to more serious problems. This involves inserting a flexible tube with a tiny camera in the tip (an endoscope) by way of the anus to examine the inside of the colon (the last part of the intestines).

Treating and Preventing Diarrhea

The goal of treatment is to ease the symptoms and get the bowel movements back to normal. Preventing dehydration, which can happen due to the extra loss of water during episodes of diarrhea, is also important – especially in children and seniors.

People don't always need to take medication for diarrhea. For adults, it's a good idea to just wait 48 to 72 hours if possible to see if it stops on its own. By allowing it to "run its course," your body can naturally get rid of the diarrhea and whatever caused it. If the diarrhea continues, however, you should talk to your doctor.

If the suspected cause is a parasite or bacteria, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to get rid of it. Otherwise, a doctor or pharmacist may recommend medications such as attapulgite*, bismuth subsalicylate, or loperamide to provide relief from diarrhea. If symptoms continue more than 48 hours from onset of the diarrhea, consult a doctor.

Dehydration caused by losing water through frequent bowel movements can cause serious complications. In particular, it can make any medications you take go through your body much more quickly than they should, so they may not work properly. Be sure to discuss this with your doctor. Dehydration can also cause kidney damage and electrolyte imbalances.

Signs of dehydration include a dry mouth, increased thirst, decreased urination, decreased sweating, and feeling weak or lightheaded. Signs may also include nausea, muscle cramps, and a higher body temperature. At the first sign of diarrhea, drink plenty of "clear" fluids, at least two cups an hour. Oral rehydration solutions designed to best match the body's intestinal fluid are best, especially for children and seniors. Be sure to consult a health professional before treating children or if diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting. Once rehydration has been successful, age-appropriate foods should be re-introduced.

Standard recommendations no longer include "resting the bowel" after a diarrhea episode. Take it easy physically until the diarrhea is gone – you'll need your strength to get well faster. You may want to eat foods that are known to "bind" stool and slow movement through the large intestine, such as bananas, rice, and toast – the so-called "BRAT diet."

Find out what caused your diarrhea - you may be able to prevent it in the future. Because infectious agents cause so many cases, take the same precautions with diarrhea as with the flu:

  • Don't touch the hands of someone with diarrhea. If you must touch them, wash your hands immediately afterwards.
  • If you have diarrhea, wash your hands before making meals and after using the washroom, and dry your hands with a disposable paper towel - not the towel everyone else uses.
  • Many of the infectious agents that cause diarrhea hide out in food. Avoid eating undercooked meat or raw seafood, and watch out for foods that are past their freshness date or have been left in the open.

*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®). The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.




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