Diarrhea is a common type of gastrointestinal upset or infection. It causes frequent and excessive discharging of the bowels in the form of abnormally watery stools and stomach pains.
Believe it or not, acute diarrhea can be one of your body’s best defense mechanisms against a temporary infection or virus. Although they’re uncomfortable and unpleasant to deal with, short-term diarrhea symptoms help rapidly expel harmful substances out of your GI tract before they have a chance to cause even more trouble or complications.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is a natural reaction to dehydration, infection or toxins that need to be expelled from the digestive system. Examples include certain types of bacteria, parasites, food allergies or other microbes. One of the risks associated with diarrhea is that it can make you even more dehydrated and ill if you’re already sick. This is because it makes the body lose too much water and minerals, including electrolytes like sodium, too quickly.
Here are the most common:
- Frequent bowel movements, including going to the bathroom more than 1-2 times daily
- Watery feces, or “loose” stools
- Abdominal pains, cramping and sometimes stomach bloating
- Sometimes nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pains and sometimes loss of appetite, trouble eating enough and/or weight loss
- Increased thirst, due to losing more water than usual when going to the bathroom frequently
- Sometimes symptoms of a fever depending on what’s causing diarrhea (such as an infection or illness)
- Symptoms of dehydration, which can include weakness, brain fog, upset stomach, dizziness and blood pressure changes
Causes in adults include:
- Bacterial infection. This can be passed from person to person or picked up from contaminated surfaces.
- Food allergies, such as lactose intolerance (a type of sugar found in dairy).
- Drinking contaminated water, which can contain parasites, bacteria, etc.
- Food poisoning, due to eating a food contaminated with some type of harmful microbe.
- Dehydration (not drinking enough water or losing too much water from vomiting/illnesses or other causes).
- Poor digestion and related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Overeating or drinking lots of liquids too quickly.
- Eating too much unripe or overripe food
- Eating too much greasy food that is difficult to digest properly.
- Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption, which can lead to dehydration and indigestion.
- Emotional stress and anxiety.
- Due to side effects of taking certain medications, especially antacids.
- Other supplements and medications including antibiotics, quinidine, lactulose and colchicine can also cause diarrhea. Taking too much vitamin C and magnesium in supplement form can do the same.
Causes in children can include:
- Rotavirus, which is the most common cause of diarrhea in children ages 2 and younger.
- Food allergies, including an allergy to milk or other common culprits like peanuts, eggs, etc.
- Reactions to formula, or sometimes from breastfeeding if the mother consumed something that is hard to digest.
- Not consuming enough liquids or consuming too much (such as juice).
- Bacterial infection, such as from touching dirty surfaces, toys, or other people and then putting their hands into their mouths.
- Taking antibiotics, which can cause changes in the gut/digestive system due to killing off healthy bacteria.
If you do decide to get a professional opinion, your doctor will likely recommend some of the following treatments for diarrhea:
- Anti-diarrheal medications: These medications can help shut down diarrhea symptoms quickly, but this isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Because diarrhea is one of your body’s natural mechanisms for shedding toxins or microbes that have made their way into your GI tract, not allowing this “purge” to happen might mean that harmful bacteria stay inside your body longer. It is preferable to combat diarrhea naturally.
- Following an elimination diet: If you’re suffering from chronic diarrhea symptoms, then your doctor will likely recommend you try pinpointing which foods are problematic for you to digest by following an elimination diet.
- Staying hydrated and eating light, bland foods until you feel better.