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What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea—loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day—is a common problem that usually lasts a day or two and goes away on its own without any special treatment. However, prolonged diarrhea can be a sign of other problems. People with diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day.

Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.

People of all ages can get diarrhea. The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.


What causes diarreah?

Diarrhea may be caused by a temporary problem, like an infection, or a chronic problem, like an intestinal disease. A few of the more common causes of diarrhea are

  • Bacterial infections. Several types of bacteria, consumed through contaminated food or water, can cause diarrhea. Common culprits include Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli.

  • Viral infections. Many viruses cause diarrhea, including rotavirus, Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, and viral hepatitis.

  • Food intolerances. Some people are unable to digest some component of food, such as lactose, the sugar found in milk.

  • Parasites. Parasites can enter the body through food or water and settle in the digestive system. Parasites that cause diarrhea include Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Cryptosporidium.

  • Reaction to medicines, such as antibiotics, blood pressure medications, and antacids containing magnesium.

  • Intestinal diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease.

  • Functional bowel disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, in which the intestines do not work normally.

Some people develop diarrhea after stomach surgery or removal of the gallbladder. The reason may be a change in how quickly food moves through the digestive system after stomach surgery or an increase in bile in the colon that can occur after gallbladder surgery.

In many cases, the cause of diarrhea cannot be found. As long as diarrhea goes away on its own, an extensive search for the cause is not usually necessary.

People who visit foreign countries are at risk for traveler's diarrhea, which is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or, sometimes, parasites. Traveler's diarrhea is a particular problem for people visiting developing countries. Visitors to the United States, Canada, most European countries, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand do not face much risk for traveler's diarrhea.

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