What is Diarrhea

Diarrhoea, also spelled diarrhea, is not a sickness in and of itself, rather it is a symptom of underlying conditions. Diarrhea is described as having stool that is not formed and is watery. This digestive problem may or may not be accompanied by cramping in the abdominal region or a sense of urgency. There may also be an incomplete emptying of the bowel, causing the person experiencing diarrhea to use the bathroom immediately after having used it.
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There may also be an inabilty to control bowel movements. If the diarrhea lasts longer than 2 weeks, it may be necessary to consult a physician. Most people who are suffering from diarrhea will become dehydrated, so it is important to drink plenty of water. Juices and sports drinks, such as Gatorade, also help alleviate dehydration. For young children, there are specially formulated drinks and frozen pops use to rehydrate.

Causes of Diarrhea

There are many causes of diarrhea. One of the reasons someone may have this issue is that it is accompanying a virus, such as a flu virus. Another cause of loose stools is food born illness due to foreign bacteria or parasites. These causes can happen when foods are undercooked, improperly cleaned or improperly stored. Parasites in the digestive system can also result in diarrhea. Some diseases cause diarrhea, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, pancreatic diseases, diseases that compromise the immune system (such as HIV), irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s Disease.

It should be noted that people who have had organ transplants also have compromised immune systems. Diarrhea can also be caused by food allergies, such as lactose intolerance, a high fiber diet, use of laxatives or unsanitary conditions in foreign countries. Loose stools can also occur after running long distances. In some cases, a hard bowel obstruction causes liquidy stools to pass through, giving the impression that there is diarrhea. Yet another cause of diarrhea is medications, such as some antibiotics. Overeating can also be a cause for diarrhea as can stress.

Who is at Risk for Diarrhea

People with compromised immune systems are at risk for developing diarrhea. That population includes those who are HIV positive, people who have had organ transplants and people undergoing certain types chemotherapy. Those who are living or traveling in regions with unsanitary water systems are also at risk. Young children, especially those who are in child care facilities, and the elderly, who may be unable to properly clean themselves can also be susceptible to diarrhea.

Tips for Preventing Diarrhea

The single most important factor in preventing diarrhea caused by virus and bacteria is to wash hands with soap and water. Keeping food prep areas clean and sanitary with antibacterial cleanser will also help. Cooking food thoroughly based on the temperatures recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Temperatures can be monitored using a meat thermometer. It is also important to keep informed of recalled food items that have been contaminated. For example, there were widespread recalls of pre-packaged spinach due to bacterial contamination. When travelling in foreign countries where the water supply may be contaminated, only drink bottled water. Do not brush teeth with the tap water.

Testing and Diagnosing Diarrhea

While it is easy to tell if diarrhea is present, it is more important to test for and diagnose why the person has diarrhea. Usually, diarrhea will stop with over the counter medications or with time. If the diarrhea does not resolve after a period of time, is accompanied by a fever or severe cramping, or the person with diarrhea is unable to keep swallow water to stay hydrated, or the stools are bloody or black, then a physician should be consulted.

There are several test that may be done in order to diagnose the cause of diarrhea. There may be blood test done to determine such things as the presence of an infection. Stool samples could be taken in order to test for parasites or bacteria. If there is a blockage, then an x-ray may be able to diagnose the problem.

Still another method for finding the cause of diarrhea is to have a colonoscopy or endoscopy to look at the digestive system from the inside. These tests can find polyps or the presence of cancer in the system or other problems that may be interrupting digestion. A CT scan can also be used to look for Crohn’s Disease and problems with the pancreas.

Treatment of Diarrhea

Once there is a determination of why diarrhea is happening, there are several treatment options available, including over the counter remedies, prescriptions and other medical procedures. Available treatments include:


Bismuth this over the counter remedy is widely marketed as “Pepto Bismol” or generic store brands. It is available in most retail and convenience stores. There are dosages for adults and for children. Bismuth is offered in liquid, tablet and chewable tablets. It should be noted that this type of remedy may turn stool or tongues dark or black; It is a normal reaction. Bismuth costs around $2 or more depending on the size and whether it is in liquid or solid form. Unless under the care of a physician, follow the directions on the product.


This remedy is widely marketed as Imodium, Maalox Anti Diarrheal, and Kaopectate. There are tablets, liquid and caplets available in most retail markets. It is recommended to be used by children over the age of 6 and adults. While the elderly may also take this product, there needs to be close monitoring for symptoms of dehydration, as they are more likely to have problems losing water. Loperamide costs around $3, but can be more. Follow the dosing directions unless otherwise directed by a medical professional.


Sold as the product Lactaid, this medication is for people who experience diarrhea as a result of an intolerance to dairy products, such as milk. Although avoiding dairy will also help, Lactaid can also be used. This product comes in caplets or easy to chew tablets.

There are also substitutes for milk, cheese and ice cream that are marketed under the Lactaid brand. However, there are also soy, rice and almond milk based products available for consumption. The variety of non-dairy products ranges from $3 and up, depending on the size and type of product.


There are specific types of teas that are thought to help control diarrhea, such as teas made from raspberry, blueberry or blackberry leaves or also Chamomile Tea. Whether or not the tea needs to be made directly from the leaves or can be made from processed products is unclear.

These teas can be found in natural food stores or some grocery stores, and cost $5 and up for boxes of teabags. The cost of pure leaves depends on the number and potency of the leaves. Although some of the leaves are available in tablet form, they do not seem to work as well as the teas. Dosage will vary depending on those factors. It should be noted that some teas can harm unborn children, so it is important to talk to a physician or homeopathic expert to determine if the tea is right for you.

Acidophilus or Lactobacillus

These are referred to as the good bacteria in the digestive system, or probiotics. Taking antibiotics can kill these bacteria and can cause diarrhea. Acidophilus is available in liquid, caplets, tablets or powder. It can also be found in yogurt and some cheeses.
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Acidophilus will benefit those who are experiencing diarrhea due to antibiotic use and possibly aid those who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Yogurt with probiotics can be purchased for less than a dollar per container. For tablets, powder, liquid or caplets, the price will vary depending on the purity and amount of the product. Acidophilus can be found in retail, grocery and health food stores.

Methylsulfonylmethane or MSM

This is a sulfur based product designed to sooth the digestive system. It is available in health food and organic stores. These pills cost under $10 a bottle. It should be noted that, although it is said to help the digestive system, diarrhea is one of the possible side effects, so the usefulness of this product is questionable.

Bland Diet

This type of diet, also called the BRAT diet, will allow your digestive system to work less while sick with diarrhea. BRAT stands for Bananas, Rice, Apples/Applesauce and Toast. Tea can also be part of the BRAT diet. These foods should be eaten for the first 24 hours.

If the BRAT diet can be consumed without causing more diarrhea, other foods can slowly be added until a normal diet is resumed. The BRAT diet foods are all available for purchase at grocers and should cost less than $10 total. If the person suffering from the diarrhea is healthy, they may also choose to fast for a short period of time to allow the digestive system to remain inactive. Keep in mind that the body needs to remain hydrated during fasted, so consuming water, juice or sports drinks is recommended.


A prescription treatment for diarrhea. It works by stopping the muscular movement of the bowels as well as stopping nerve impulses that trigger the bowel movements. This type of medication is available when over the counter treatments do not work


This prescription remedy is derived from opiates. It helps prevent the muscular actions of the digestive system. Similar to Lomotil, it should be used only when other remedies have not worked.


When there is a bacterial problem that is causing the diarrhea, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. It is important to note that some people are allergic to antibiotics, such as penicillin and its derivatives. A physician should be informed of any allergies.


If the cause of the diarrhea is a physical problem, such as a tumor, then there may be a surgical solution to the diarrhea. Of course, this type of treatment can only be used after having clear and lengthy discussions with a primary physician and any other health professionals that are involved in care.

It is important to remember that the majority of cases of diarrhea resolve themselves with time. If over the counter medications and time do not help the diarrhea to resolve, it is then time to consult a physician. With the help of a doctor, the root of the problem can be discovered. When meeting with a physician, it is important to disclose any important information that may explain the diarrhea, including any foods that may have been improperly prepared or any contaminated water source that may have been used. During any episodes of diarrhea, it is very important to stay hydrated and stick to a bland diet.

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