What Is Diarrhea?

40,210 views

Story at-a-glance

  • According to the New England Journal of Medicine, there are approximately 179 million cases of acute diarrhea in the U.S. every year
  • By drinking safe and pure water and practicing correct handwashing, adequate sanitation and proper human waste disposal, the incidence of diarrhea can be reduced drastically

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, there are approximately 179 million cases of acute diarrhea in the U.S. every year.1 A lot of people think this is just a simple illness that will go away on its own. However, diarrhea should be taken seriously because it’s an indication that something is not right in your body, and may even be fatal if not addressed. But what exactly is diarrhea, what makes it dangerous and how can you prevent this illness?

Basic Diarrhea Facts You Need to Know

Diarrhea is defined as having unusually loose or watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. It is an illness that everyone has experienced at one time or another, and usually leads to a greater volume of stool and more frequent trips to the toilet.2 In most cases, it is triggered by an infection caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites.  There are three types of diarrhea, defined by how long the illness persists:3

Acute: According to Medscape,4 this is when the condition comes on abruptly with three or more loose stools in a day, and lasts only a short time — typically between several hours to a few days, and no longer than two weeks.

Persistent: This is when the illness continues for more than 14 days, but less than 28.

Chronic: This is diarrhea that p3ersists for longer than 28 days.

Aside from frequently passing loose and watery stools, people with diarrhea might also experience fever, abdominal cramps, bleeding, dehydration-caused lightheadedness or dizziness,5 or nausea.6

You Should Take Foul-Smelling Diarrhea Seriously

Most of the time, diarrhea passes in a day or two, but if it persists for several days, it may indicate a more serious condition. If you have severe or extremely painful diarrhea that lasts more than two days and comes with other symptoms, such as bloody or black stools, a high fever (102 degrees F or 39 degrees C),nausea7 and vomiting,8 severe abdominal or rectal pain, dehydration,9 or weight loss, you need to seek immediate medical care.

In some cases, having diarrhea could mean that you are suffering from a more serious condition. Experiencing vomiting and diarrhea could be an indication of viral gastroenteritis or stomach flu,10 or food poisoning.11

Diarrhea may develop due to stress or anxiety as well. VeryWell Health explains that it’s connected to the body’s fight-or-flight system. Once this is activated by something that may be “threatening,” the body reacts to it in a stressful manner. Your heart rate and breathing may increase, and colon contractions become faster and eventually cause diarrhea.12

People with diabetes may experience diarrhea because they have either autonomic or peripheral neuropathy (caused by damage that occurs to the body’s nerves that control certain functions),13,14 increased consumption of a sweetener called sorbitol15 or enteric nervous system (ENS) imbalance.16

Diarrhea may also manifest in HIV patients, alongside other symptoms like vomiting, nausea, fatigue, fever and headaches. These are early symptoms of this life-threatening infection.17

Diarrhea Can Be Potentially Dangerous

Worldwide, diarrhea causes the death of 2,195 children every day — more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.18 This illness can be fatal because it depletes body fluids and causes profound dehydration. If you or a loved one is suffering from diarrhea, watch out for these warning signs of dehydration:19

Adults Infants and Young Children
Thirst Dry mouth
Less frequent urination than usual No wet diapers for at least three hours
Dark-colored urine No tears when crying
Dry mouth Sunken eyes, cheeks or a soft spot in the skull
Fatigue Thirst
Dizziness or light-headedness Reduced energy levels

Also, remember that when someone is dehydrated, his or her skin does not flatten back to normal immediately after being gently pinched and then released. Any person with these signs should consult a physician immediately.20

The Importance of Diarrhea Prevention and Treatment

It is alarming how many lives are lost to uncontrollable diarrhea each year, especially because these deaths are preventable. In fact, most diarrhea-related complications can be avoided with simple and low-cost natural interventions.21 By drinking safe and pure water, and practicing correct handwashing, adequate sanitation and proper human waste disposal, the incidence of diarrhea can be reduced drastically.

MORE ABOUT DIARRHEA

Diarrhea: Introduction

What Is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea In Kids

Diarrhea During Pregnancy

Diarrhea Duration

Is Diarrhea Contagious?

Diarrhea Causes

Diarrhea Types

Diarrhea Symptoms

Diarrhea Treatment

Diarrhea Prevention

Diarrhea Diet

Diarrhea FAQ



< Previous

Diarrhea: Introduction

Next >

Diarrhea In Kids

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 N Engl J Med 2014; 370:1532-1540
  • 2, 6, 8 Mayo Clinic, October 25, 2016
  • 3 VeryWell Health, July 13, 2016
  • 4 Medscape, June 23, 2017
  • 5 UCSF Medical Center, "Diarrhea Signs and Symptoms"
  • 7 WebMD, October 6, 2016
  • 9 Medical News Today, November 28, 2017
  • 10 Medical News Today, December 21, 2017
  • 11 WebMD, April 2, 2017
  • 12 VeryWell Health, May 17, 2018
  • 13 Mayo Clinic, May 16, 2018
  • 14 MedicineNet, April 5, 2018
  • 15 Medical News Today, June 6, 2016
  • 16 Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2007 Dec; 19(12): 951–960. Published online 2007 Oct 17
  • 17 WebMD, October 25, 2016
  • 18, 21 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 17, 2015
  • 19, 20 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, November 2016