What Causes Diarrhea and How to Treat It

Victoria Burke by Victoria Burke | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Many people have experienced diarrhea. Usually it’s just a short-term affliction, but if it lasts for a period of days or weeks, it could indicate a serious underlying problem, according to the Mayo Clinic. Diarrhea can be life-threatening if it causes dehydration. Here’s a look at common diarrhea treatment and some of the most common causes.

What exactly is diarrhea?

Regardless of what causes diarrhea, the symptoms tend to look the same. If you have abdominal pain and cramping, loose watery stools at least three times a day, nausea, and a loss of control over your bowel movements, you have all the classic signs of diarrhea described by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD).

When it comes to what causes diarrhea, those with infection-related diarrhea may also show signs such as vomiting, fever and chills, bloody stools, and even dizziness.

Diarrhea treatment depends on the causes and how long you’ve had symptoms.

What causes diarrhea?

The list of what causes diarrhea includes everything from viruses, bacterial infections, medications, and food intolerances, according to the Mayo Clinic. Here’s a partial list of common culprits that may lead to abdominal distress and diarrhea:

  • Viruses such as Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, and viral hepatitis.
  • Bacteria from contaminated food or parasites such as Giardia, salmonella, shigella, and E. coli.
  • Antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, and even antacid preparations.
  • Intolerance to lactose, sucrose, or other artificial sweeteners.

Sometimes, what causes diarrhea is related to an ongoing digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or colitis. Even surgical procedures such as gallbladder removal can cause diarrhea.

What should I know about how to treat diarrhea?

Diarrhea treatment depends on a multitude of factors, including the cause and whether it is acute or chronic, according to the NIDDKD. To answer the question of how to treat diarrhea when it is acute, which means sudden onset and not lasting more than a few days, most health care professionals suggest over-the-counter medications like Imodium (loperimide) or Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate). Of course, if your diarrhea is accompanied by bloody stools or fever, or lasts more than two days, you should get medical attention right away, since these could be signs of a bacterial infection or parasites.

How to treat diarrhea when it is chronic or persistent requires a different approach. If what causes diarrhea is bacteria or parasites, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics as part of your diarrhea treatment. If your diarrhea is caused by a digestive disease, your health care provider may recommend prescription medications to treat the disorder and lessen the incidence of diarrhea.

Depending on what causes diarrhea, your doctor may also recommend probiotic therapy. Probiotics are living microorganisms that are normally found in a healthy digestive system. Research is still ongoing about whether or not these are an effective weapon when it comes to diarrhea treatment.

Regardless of what causes diarrhea or what diarrhea treatment your doctor recommends, there are still things you should do to guard against dehydration, which is a common side effect of diarrhea, according to the NIDDKD:

  • Drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids.
  • Remember to consume other liquids such as broth, fruit juices, or sports drinks, that help replace lost electrolytes.
  • If you are a senior or have a weakened immune system from another condition, you should rehydrate with Pedialyte or CeraLyte, formulations that contain necessary glucose and electrolytes.

Want to know more about Medicare and how to treat diarrhea?

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