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What is 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.

What are the 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 chronic diarrhea it does not frequently come and go.

How is diarrhea caused?

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.

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.

Dietary management of 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
    • Stay hydrated: Consume plenty of fluids to replace the lost water and electrolytes.
    • 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.

2. Foods to avoid:

    • Spicy, greasy, or fried foods Can worsen the diarrhea
    • High-fiber foods Avoid high fiber foods in case of diarrhea as they can be difficult to digest in such times
    • Dairy products A lot of people are lactose intolerant. It is important to avoid milk-based products when diarrhea is happening
    • Sugary or artificially sweetened foods and beverages These can have an osmotic effect and contribute to loose stools.

How to prevent travel diarrhea?

  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. Avoid 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.

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Conclusion

Diarrhea is often temporary and typically resolves in 2-3 days. However if diarrhea is more permanent and comes and goes often, then it may be required to seek a health care professional’s help. More persistent diarrhea could be because of an underlying issue which needs to be addressed. 

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