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It's one of those things no one likes to talk about, but everyone has experienced - diarrhea. For most people, it's a short-lived, highly unpleasant occurrence. But for some people, especially children and the elderly, it can be dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diarrhea can impact the ability of the body to process and absorb necessary water, salts and nutrition and in some cases can lead to dehydration (Read about "Dehydration"), shock and even death.
Basically, diarrhea is the passage of loose or watery stools (bowel movements) that may also contain blood, pus or mucus. It is fairly common in children. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) says that in the U.S., there are 20 to 35 million episodes of diarrhea in children every year. When diarrhea is present, there can also be other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, headache and fever. (Read about "Digestive System" "Headaches")
Diarrhea can be a symptom of chronic digestive conditions such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. (Read about "Celiac Disease" "Irritable Bowel Syndrome" "Ulcerative Colitis" "Crohn's Disease") Diarrhea can also result from lactose intolerance. (Read about "Lactose Intolerance") Other diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can result in diarrhea. (Read about "Cystic Fibrosis") Diarrhea can also be acute, in other words happening suddenly and only for a brief period of time. Mild instances of acute diarrhea can be caused by a number of conditions, including food allergies, antibiotics or changes in our eating habits. (Read about "Food Allergies" "Antibiotics" "Digestive System") Some treatments for other conditions, including some cancer treatments (Read about "Cancer Treatments"), can result in diarrhea.
Undercooked foods or spoiled foods can also result in diarrhea. (Read about "Trichinosis" "Food Safety") When traveling, many people experience diarrhea because of problems with the water supply. (Read about "Travel and Health") In many cases of food and water contamination, the culprit is a bacterium called E. coli, which CDC calls a leading cause of foodborne illness. (Read about "E. coli")
CDC says serious cases of diarrhea, along with other symptoms, can also be caused by:
(Read about "Microorganisms")
Diarrheal illness can also be seasonal or may occur in outbreaks where many people are affected.
Most people who develop a case of mild diarrhea recover without treatment. Treatment, of course, depends on the cause of the diarrhea. If it is caused by a parasite, such as with giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, there are medications that can be used. CDC says antibiotics are not always an appropriate treatment for diarrhea. That's because many diarrheal illnesses are caused by viruses, which don't respond to antibiotics.
In the case of E. coli 0157:H7, antibiotics may contribute to a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and should not be used, according to CDC. HUS is characterized by destruction of red blood cells, damage to the lining of blood vessel walls and, in severe cases, kidney failure. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) says most cases of HUS occur as a result of E coli infection and children are most likely to be affected. According to NIDDK, 90 percent of HUS patients recover, but some cases can lead to kidney failure. (Read about "Kidney Disease")
However, the most common danger for anyone with a serious case of diarrhea, especially children and seniors, is dehydration. (Read about "Dehydration") This happens if the body loses more fluids and salts (electrolytes) than it takes in. Signs of dehydration include a decrease in urine production (Read about "The Urinary System"), extreme thirst, dry mouth and unusual drowsiness. Severe dehydration is a medical emergency and requires immediate care.
CDC says special oral rehydration fluids can be purchased at drugstores, and can be used according to the package directions. You should ask your pediatrician what's best in your child's case.
If you have any concerns about dehydration or about a child's or your own diarrhea, contact your doctor at once. It's also important to call your doctor if someone with diarrhea is also experiencing any of the following:
Perhaps the best course is to develop (and help children develop) habits that can reduce the risk of infections that lead to diarrhea. The following are suggestions from CDC and the International Food Information Council:
Although you can't guarantee you or your family will never get diarrhea, you can at least help reduce your risk.
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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