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  • Diarrhea can be classified in two ways: according to the length of time that the condition lasts and the mechanism by which it occurs
  • You should remember that any kind of diarrhea can cause dehydration and may prevent your body from carrying out important functions
 

What Are the Different Types of Diarrhea?

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Diarrhea can be classified in two ways: according to the length of time that the condition lasts and the mechanism by which it occurs.1

Diarrhea Is Generally Classified Based on Duration

If the symptoms come on suddenly but clear up in less than two weeks, it is called acute diarrhea.2 In the U.S., this type of diarrhea is one of the most common illnesses, and worldwide, it is among the leading causes of death in children younger than 5 years old.3,4 Acute diarrhea is typically caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites.5

Persistent diarrhea is when the illness lasts from two to four weeks. It can stem from a number of conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, diverticular disease and bowel cancer. You can also get this type of diarrhea after stomach surgery (e.g., gastrectomy).6

If the condition lasts longer than four weeks, it is considered chronic diarrhea. Although often caused by digestive disorders (just like persistent diarrhea),7 it can also occur due to bacterial, parasitic and viral infections.8

Types of Diarrhea According to Pathophysiology

The second classification of diarrhea involves four mechanisms by which the condition occurs, but take note that there can be an overlap between them.9

Osmotic diarrhea. This form of diarrhea involves the retention of water in the bowel, which results from the accumulation of non-absorbable substances. For instance, sugar substitutes like sorbitol and mannitol can slow down absorption while causing rapid motility of the small intestine.10

Secretory diarrhea. When electrolyte absorption is affected, the body releases water into the small intestine, causing loose bowel movements.11 This type of diarrhea is often a result of infection or the intake of certain drugs.12

Motility-related diarrhea. Certain conditions can cause changes in how your digestive system works, and affect processes like absorption. Some conditions that can cause this type of diarrhea are hyperthyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome and having a partial gastrectomy.13

Inflammatory diarrhea. It occurs when the lining of the colon becomes inflamed, which typically causes bloody diarrhea. This is common in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.14

You should remember that any kind of diarrhea can cause dehydration and may prevent your body from carrying out important functions.15 This can eventually progress to severe problems, such as seizures, kidney failure and hypovolemic shock, and can even be fatal.16 However, with prompt and appropriate treatment, these complications can be avoided.17

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