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Most frequently asked questions on diarrhea

Diarrhea is a functional gastrointestinal disorder that is characterized by loose, watery stools occurring more frequently than usual. The frequency of the bowels is also increased. It can be caused by various factors, such as viral, bacterial or parasitic infections, certain medication side effects, lactose intolerance, dietary changes, or surgical side effects. However, for some individuals, recurrent or chronic diarrhea may be a sign of a specific condition known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea (IBS-D)

The severity and duration of diarrhea can vary widely, ranging from a short-lived episode to a chronic condition that persists for weeks or even months.

Different types of diarrhea

The three clinical types of diarrhea are

  • Acute Watery diarrhea: This type of diarrhea is short lived with water being a major part in the stools. It gets treated in a couple of days
  • Chronic diarrhea: When diarrhea persists for more than four weeks, it is considered chronic. TThis type is usually linked with an underlying issue like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, or malabsorption disorders. Chronic diarrhea requires thorough evaluation and management to address the underlying cause effectively. This type of diarrhea comes and goes at regular intervals.
  • Persistent diarrhea: This type persists for several weeks and unlike the chronic diarrhea it does not frequently comes and goes.

Frequently asked questions on diarrhea

Q1. What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea can be caused by stomach flu. This is mostly a mild infection caused by either bacteria or viruses. Certain viruses can trigger inflammation and irritation in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to diarrhea. These infections are typically spread through contaminated food or water, or by close contact with infected individuals. Eating or drinking food or water that contains certain types of bacteria or parasites can also lead to diarrhea. Certain medicines like antibiotics, chemo drugs can cause diarrhea as well 

Certain food intolerances or allergies can cause diarrhea. For example, lactose intolerance, which is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products, can lead to diarrhea when lactose is consumed. Gluten intolerance in individuals with celiac disease, can also trigger diarrhea.

Antibiotics can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the gut. This imbalance, known as antibiotic-associated diarrhea, can cause loose stools. Gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can also result in chronic or recurrent episodes of diarrhea.

Q2. How long does diarrhea usually last?

Acute diarrhea often resolves within a few days to a week. It may take some time for the bowel movements to return to normal even after the infection is cleared. During this recovery period, the intestinal lining repairs itself and regains its normal function. 

Chronic diarrhea, which lasts for more than four weeks, can be caused by a range of factors. It often requires a thorough evaluation by a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, or malabsorption disorders like pancreatic insufficiency or bile acid malabsorption can lead to persistent or recurrent episodes of diarrhea.

If diarrhea lasts longer than a couple of weeks, is accompanied by severe symptoms such as dehydration, persistent abdominal pain, and bloody stools, or if it significantly affects daily life and activities, it is important to seek medical attention for proper diagnosis and management.

Q3. Can stress or anxiety trigger diarrhea?

Stress and anxiety can trigger a lot of gut issues and diarrhea is one of them. Gut and brain are linked and when the mind goes into the fight or flight state all the body energy is diverted towards it compromising the digestive system. 

When we experience stress or anxiety, the body’s stress response is activated, leading to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can affect the motility of the gastrointestinal tract, increasing contractions and speeding up the transit of food through the intestines. This accelerated transit can result in loose stools and diarrhea.

Moreover, stress and anxiety can also alter the balance of gut bacteria and affect the gut’s immune response, further impacting gut function. Individuals with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be particularly susceptible to stress-induced diarrhea, as their gut sensitivity and motility are already heightened.

Q4. Is diarrhea contagious?

Answer: Diarrhea can be contagious depending on its underlying cause. In cases where diarrhea is caused by viral or bacterial infections, it can be contagious and easily spread from person to person. These viruses are generally spread through food and water

Proper hygiene practices, such as regular handwashing with soap and water, especially after using the restroom or before handling food, can significantly reduce the risk of spreading infectious diarrhea. It’s also essential to properly disinfect surfaces and objects that may come into contact with fecal matter.

Q5. What should I eat or avoid when experiencing diarrhea?

  1. Foods to eat: Stick to a bland diet Opt for easily digestible foods such as cooked grains (rice, oats), steamed veggies, curd rice
  2. Stay hydrated: Consume plenty of fluids to replace the lost water and electrolytes.
  3. Include probiotics: Probiotics, found in yogurt or available as supplements, can help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria and aid in the recovery of the digestive system.
  4. Foods to avoid: Spicy, greasy, or fried foods Can worsen the diarrhea
  5. High-fiber foods: Avoid high fiber foods in case of diarrhea as they can be difficult to digest in such times
  6. Dairy products: A lot of people are lactose intolerant. It is important to avoid milk-based products when diarrhea is happening
  7. Sugary or artificially sweetened foods and beverages: These can have an osmotic effect and contribute to loose stools.

Q6. When should I seek medical help for diarrhea?

You should seek help when the following is observed

  • Severe dehydration: Signs of severe dehydration include excessive thirst and dry mouth. Sometimes dizziness can also point towards the same. It is important to see a doctor, in this case,
  • Prolonged diarrhea: If diarrhea persists for more than a couple of weeks or if it becomes chronic, then it is advisable to seek help from a doctor.
  • Severe abdominal pain: Intense or persistent abdominal pain, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like fever or blood in the stool, warrants a medical assessment.
  • Presence of blood or mucus: If there is blood or mucous in the stools or if the stools are black-coloured, it is important to seek help

Q7. How can I prevent diarrhea when traveling?

Diarrhea can be triggered by contaminated food and water

  1. Practice good hand hygiene: Wash your hands frequently with soap and clean water. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content.
  2. Drink safe water: Consume only safe, bottled water, or properly treated and filtered water. Avoid tap water and water from unknown sources
  3. Choose safe food options: Opt for hot, freshly cooked foods that are served steaming hot. AAvoid raw foods, salads, and uncooked items.
  4. Practice proper food handling: Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly and maintain good hygiene
  5. Be cautious with street food: Avoid street food as much as possible
  6. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of safe fluids to prevent dehydration. Carry a water bottle with you and ensure it is filled with clean, safe water.

Q8. Can children and infants get diarrhea? How is it treated?

Here’s how diarrhea is typically treated in children and infants:

  • Rehydration: The primary focus in treating diarrhea in children and infants is to prevent dehydration. Offer fluids frequently, including oral rehydration solutions specifically designed for children, to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes.
  • Diet modifications: During episodes of diarrhea, it’s important to make dietary adjustments. Offer easily digestible foods such as rice cereal, mashed bananas, applesauce, or well-cooked carrots. Avoid high-fiber foods, sugary drinks, and fatty or fried foods that can worsen symptoms.
  • Medical evaluation: If diarrhea persists or is accompanied by severe symptoms like high fever, blood in the stool, or signs of dehydration, it is advisable to consult a pediatrician. They can assess the underlying cause, provide appropriate treatment, and offer guidance specific to the child’s age and condition.
  • Proper hygiene: Practice good hygiene by regularly washing hands, cleaning and sanitizing diaper-changing areas, and ensuring bottles, nipples, and utensils are properly cleaned to prevent the spread of infection.

Q9. Can certain medications cause diarrhea?

  • Antibiotics: While antibiotics are essential for treating bacterial infections, they can also disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to diarrhea. This is because antibiotics not only kill harmful bacteria but may also affect beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: They are commonly used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. However, they can irritate the lining of the digestive tract, potentially causing diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs): PPIs are medications used to reduce stomach acid production and treat conditions like acid reflux or stomach ulcers. In some individuals, PPIs can disrupt the normal balance of gut bacteria and contribute to diarrhea.
  • Some cancer treatments: Certain chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy targeted at the abdominal area can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and lead to diarrhea.

Q10. Is it necessary to see a doctor for every episode of diarrhea?

In case of acute watery diarrhea you might not need to see a doctor every time as it can easily get resolved in a couple of days. However you should see a doctor if the following persist –

  1. If diarrhea persists for more than a couple of weeks, is recurrent, or is accompanied by severe symptoms such as persistent abdominal pain, high fever, blood in the stool, or signs of dehydration, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional. They can evaluate the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatment.
  2. Special populations: Infants, young children, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems may require closer monitoring and medical attention if they experience diarrhea. These populations are more vulnerable to dehydration and complications.
  3. Travel-related diarrhea: If diarrhea occurs during or after travel, particularly in regions with poor sanitation, it’s advisable to seek medical attention, as it may be necessary to rule out specific infections or receive appropriate treatment.
  4. Chronic or recurring diarrhea: If you experience chronic or recurrent episodes of diarrhea, medical evaluation is recommended to identify underlying causes and develop a suitable management plan.
  5. Severe abdominal pain: Intense or persistent abdominal pain, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like fever or blood in the stool, warrants a medical assessment.
  6. Presence of blood or mucus: If there is blood or mucous in the stools or if the stools are black-coloured, it is important to seek help

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