What is diarrhea: What causes diarrhea?

What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is a condition describing loose, watery, bowel movements.  Worldwide, diarrhea causes around a million deaths a year.  It is common; most people suffer from diarrhea at least twice a year.  Symptoms can last for several days.  Doctors treat mild diarrhea with over the counter medications, but for those who have diarrhea more frequently, diarrhea is likely a symptom of a larger medical problem such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease.

Knowing what is diarrhea will help you fight the symptoms of this condition and get you back on track.

There are three classifiable types of diarrhea: osmotic, secretory and exudative.   Osmotic diarrhea occurs when the body takes water from other parts of the body via osmosis and deposits it into the bowels.  Eating spicy food and drinking alcohol can lead to osmotic diarrhea, as the body attempts to flush the toxins out rather than digest them.  Because the body is purging water, osmotic diarrhea can lead to dehydration.  When an infection or medication causes diarrhea, it’s referred to as  secretory diarrhea.  Chronic infections can lead to exudative diarrhea, wherein blood and pus appear in bowel movements.  People suffering from Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and stomach cancers regularly experience exudative diarrhea.

What causes diarrhea?
Damaged bowels, whether from injury or disease, will lack the ability to properly digest and absorb food, causing any of the aforementioned types of diarrhea.  Many medications list diarrhea as a possible side effect.    Infections caused by food poisoning and bacteria are the most common cause of acute diarrhea. “Stomach flu,” a general term for a bacterial infection is the second leading cause and lasts 1 to 2 days.  Viruses generally do not cause diarrhea, the exception being Giardia, which can cause chronic infections in the intestines and thereby exudative diarrhea.  Long term alcohol abuse has been linked to chronic diarrhea as well.  Caffeine is a diuretic and thereby decreases absorption of water, causing more water to pass through the bowels.  Dehydration often results.  Many types of cancer, specifically those located in the digestive tract, cause chronic diarrhea as well.

What are the treatments for diarrhea?
A mild case of diarrhea usually isn’t cause for concern.  Hydration is important in preventing and treating diarrhea.  Drinks with electrolytes and salty foods accompanied by water will decrease the severity of diarrhea once it has begun.  For many, a change in lifestyle will decrease the chances of having diarrhea at all.


Many over the counter medications treat mild diarrhea as well.  Potassium and zinc can be taken as a supplement to reduce the chance of diarrhea.  If the case of diarrhea is serious, such as in the case of a stomach flu, antibiotics can be used.  For a malnourished individual, diarrhea and the accompanying dehydration can become life-threatening.  In third world countries, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, where diarrhea is often deadly, a rotavirus vaccine has been used to inoculate people by the thousands.  In developed countries, however, diarrhea is rarely the cause of death.  A good, healthy diet is often enough to avoid diarrhea.

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