Diarrhea is defined as having 3 or more loose or liquid stools per day, or as having more stools than is normal for that person. The condition usually lasts a few hours to a couple of days. Diarrhea is typically associated with abdominal cramps.
The most common causes of diarrhea include:
Other causes include medications, such as antibiotics that disturb the natural balance of the bacteria in your intestines, artificial sweeteners and lactose (a sugar found in milk).
Diarrhea that persists for more than a couple of days is considered chronic and may be a sign of an underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease or an infection. In these cases, diarrhea may lead to dehydration and requires the care of your doctor. Dehydration occurs when the body has lost too much fluid and electrolytes -- the salts potassium and sodium. The fluid and electrolytes lost during diarrhea need to be replaced promptly because the body cannot function properly without them.
Signs and symptoms associated with diarrhea may include:
Diarrhea caused by a viral infection, such as a stomach virus, or bacterial infection also may cause vomiting. In addition, blood and mucus in the stools may appear with diarrhea caused by bacterial infections.
In many cases of diarrhea, replacing lost fluid and salts is the only treatment needed. This is usually by mouth – oral rehydration therapy – or, in severe cases, intravenously. Medications such as loperamide (Imodium), bismuth subsalicylate may also be beneficial, however they may be contraindicated in certain situations.
Click here for information on acute childhood diarrhea.