I Have Diarrhea: Should I Call My Doctor?
You have likely experienced diarrhea at least a couple of times during your lifetime. This gastrointestinal ailment is always unpleasant and occasionally even debilitating.
Fortunately, you need not worry because in most instances the condition is short-lived and not caused by a serious underlying issue. If you encounter diarrhea on a more consistent basis, the ailment might be caused by a potentially significant issue that warrants diagnosis and treatment.
Medical professionals classify diarrhea as the evacuation of at least three or more loose, water-laden bowel movements in a day.
Typically, bowel movements (scientifically designated as stools) are solid. Diarrhea occurs when excessive water concentrations mix with stool content. Such events could happen for any number of reasons.
There are several types of diarrhea, including:
- Acute: Acute diarrhea is considered the most common, does not usually last for extended periods, and often does not require any aggressive treatment.
- Persistent: Persistent cases of diarrhea are those lingering anywhere from two to four weeks.
- Chronic: If you experience incidents lasting for longer than one month or that stop and then recur, your condition is labeled as chronic.
Diarrhea can result from countless possible causes. Acute and persistent cases can often be attributed to factors including:
Many acute and even persistent diarrheal events result from microbes, such as:
Bacteria and viruses often precipitate a condition known as acute gastroenteritis in which diarrhea and associated physical symptoms last until your body clears the infection.
You might contract these microbes through contaminated food and water sources. Or you might catch an opportunistic virus through contact with another infected person.
Parasites are tiny creatures like insects that gain entrance into your digestive tract via the foods and beverages you consume.
Microbes and parasites are often food-borne. They thrive in edible items that were improperly stored or insufficiently cooked, or they might also originate in the soil that certain products are grown in.
Developing nations may not have the advanced sewage and septic disposal systems typically seen in the United States and other developed countries. The water supplies of such locations can have pathogens and parasites. Unsuspecting travelers who drink the water stand at risk of developing the illness also known as traveler’s diarrhea or Montezuma’s Revenge.
Certain store-bought medications used to relieve minor and temporary ailments can cause diarrhea. Specific examples include antacids.
Chronic diarrhea also has certain discernible causes such as:
Sometimes you might unknowingly eat foods that do not sit well with your body chemistry, resulting in diarrhea and other associated manifestations.
A typical example is lactose. This chemical compound is found in items like dairy products. Fructose is another offending substance. Products such as honey, natural fruit, and fruit juices contain measurable amounts of fructose. Additionally, sugar alcohols used to produce the sweet flavor in sugar-free products might also be to blame.
Digestive System Maladies
Naturally, an affected or diseased digestive tract might also serve as the culprit for continual diarrhea incidents. Common ailments include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Inflammatory diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Immune system disorders, including celiac disease.
- An overactive thyroid.
- Bacterial imbalances inside your intestines.
Although not as common, malignancies originating in the digestive region or spreading to other organs might result in diarrhea.
Occasionally, chronic watery stools can be the side effect of abdominal surgery.
Experiencing long-term stress or emotional turmoil can increase your risk of long-term diarrhea.
Your risk of developing loose bowel movements can increase if you fail to practice good personal hygiene, engage in heavy cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, or fail to store or prepare food adequately.
Acute, persistent, or chronic cases of diarrhea can lead to possibly serious complications.
Instances of moderate to severe diarrhea increase your chances of becoming dehydrated. Losing large quantities of water and important nutrients called electrolytes carries the potential to induce dehydration. Severe dehydration is a medical emergency needing prompt attention.
Chronic diarrheal events can inhibit your capacity to absorb vitamins and minerals sufficiently. Ultimately it can result in nutritional deficiencies.
Various other physical manifestations can go with diarrhea. Specific symptoms often depend on the exact underlying causes or circumstances.
Associated events can include abdominal discomfort, bloating, nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and belching. More severe cases could be accompanied by mucous-laden stools, stools containing blood, and an elevated body temperature.
When To Consult Your Doctor?
A considerable number of cases of diarrhea produce mild to moderate symptoms lasting for only a couple of days and completely go away without incident or complications. But you should strongly consider consulting with your doctor under the following circumstances:
- The condition persists for more than two or three days.
- Loose stools are accompanied by severe and debilitating abdominal pain.
- A high fever is present.
- Significant dehydration symptoms, like extreme thirst, weakness, fatigue, discernible body cramping, dizziness, or mental confusion.
The most alarming symptom is black or tarry stools. This often indicates that you are bleeding somewhere inside your digestive tract. When severe enough, contact your doctor immediately or visit an emergency room.
Diagnosing the specific cause of chronic diarrhea could prove challenging. Before reaching a firm conclusion, your doctor might need to investigate your entire health histor.
Since diarrhea is a symptom more than an actual condition, an examining physician will likely first begin the diagnostic process by performing a comprehensive physical examination, inquiring about your family health history, other symptoms you might have experienced, and inventory the foods you eat, the medications you take, or the destinations you have traveled to.
Your doctor might use diagnostic tests like:
- Blood Tests: Microbes or parasites might appear in a blood test. Additionally, blood tests might suggest the presence of other underlying issues capable of inducing diarrhea.
- Colonoscopy or Endoscopy: These tools enable physicians to look inside your gastrointestinal tract and identify any possible abnormalities.
- Stool Tests: Doctors might take a sample of your stool. Pathogens or parasites often appear in such examinations. Other critical indicators like blood and mucous might help your healthcare provider reach specific conclusions or rule out certain conditions.
Possible Treatment Options
Specific treatment will depend on the underlying issue. Uncomplicated, acute diarrheal incidents typically resolve without therapy. When remedial protocols must be used, they might include:
Infections might be treated with antibiotics. Parasite-killing drugs can prove effective in eradicating those offenders. Other underlying gastrointestinal illnesses might experience improvement when attacked by a variety of drugs. Bacterial imbalances might be reestablished through the ingestion of probiotics.
When medications are the cause, you might need to either alter dosage or use another drug.
When food allergies are the culprit, avoiding certain items should offer relief. Moreover, acute cases might be the result of eating spicy or acidic products. They should be eaten sparingly or not at all in the future.
Smoking and drinking can irritate the lining of your gastrointestinal tract. Curtailing or stopping those habits can reduce your risk of diarrhea.
Certain types of stress are unavoidable. But eliminating unnecessary sources and identifying productive tension-breaking activities can do wonders for your digestive system.
Once identified, many diarrhea-inducing problems can be controlled through medical endeavors and lifestyle changes.
If you are dealing with persistent or chronic diarrhea, we urge you to contact the experienced, trained, and caring team of physicians at Gastroenterology of Greater Orlando.
Our practice began more than 15 years ago and has emerged as one of the leading gastroenterology practices in central Florida. We perform a host of diagnostic procedures using state-of-the-art equipment in a friendly, comfortable, and inviting atmosphere where patient care is always a top priority. Contact us today!